What causes white eye?

photos showing white glow in eye

What causes white eye?

A white glow in the eye, a white pupil or white reflection can be a symptom of retinoblastoma – a rare type of eye cancer that affects babies and young children under the age of six. However, there are other, more likely, causes of white eye which we’ve described below.

The medical term for this white eye reflex or reflection is leukocoria – leukos means white and kore means pupil. In humans it occurs when there is an abnormal light reflection in the eye. It will show up most often in photographs, or in low light levels.

Seeing a white glow in your child’s eye can be extremely worrying, but please remember that retinoblastoma is very rare – around 50 cases are diagnosed in the UK every year – and there are several other causes of white eye. But to rule out anything serious, we always recommend that if you do spot anything unusual you have your child checked out by a health professional as soon as possible. If you would like to speak to one of our support workers about any concerns you have about your child’s eyes, please call us on 020 7377 5578.

If you’ve seen the white reflex in a child’s eye in a friend’s photo and you’re worried about whether you should say anything to them, you may find our page seen a white glow in a photograph? useful. The direct link to this page, if you would like to share it with a friend or relative, is chect.org.uk/whiteeye.

white glow in pupil of eye
white glow in eye
boy with white glow in eye

Other causes of white eye

Possible conditions resulting in leukocoria or a white glow in the eye/pupil in a photo include:

Light shining off the optic nerve: this is the most common cause of a white reflex or white pupil in a photo. Light entering the eye at a certain angle may be reflected from the optic nerve. This becomes magnified and the white eye effect may be seen.

Cataract: this is the second most common cause of a white reflex. A clouding that develops in the lens of the eye may show up as a white eye effect in a photo. Surgery can treat this condition.

Persistent Hyperplastic Primary Vitreous (PHPV): the vitreous is the jelly-like substance inside the eye and this condition is due to an embryological disorder and results in a cataract (above) or a scarred retina (film of the eye).

Vitreous haemorrhage (Rhegmatogenous RD): small amounts of blood leak into the jelly in the eye, possibly from a tiny tear in the retina, preventing much of the light passing through to the retina and potentially causing white eye.

What to do next?

If you’ve seen a white glow in your child’s eye, it’s important to get them checked out by a health professional (eg GP or optician), as soon as possible. Even if you have spoken to someone on the phone, it is important that your child is seen in person, as the healthcare professional will need to examine their eyes carefully. This will be done by carrying out a red reflex test, which involves shining a light directly into the eyes. This is not possible on a video call.

Please do remember that retinoblastoma is rare and there could be many other reasons for this showing up, but it’s better to have their eyes examined to rule out anything serious.

Our retinoblastoma guide talks you through who to see and what might happen next. If you’re concerned and you’d like to talk to someone, please call us on 020 7377 5578 or email us at support@chect.org.uk.