Flash photography can sometimes show a ‘white glow’ in the eyes, which may indicate the presence of a condition, such as eye cancer or cataracts.

Retinoblastoma is an eye cancer that begins in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. It can occur in one or both of the eyes and is a common eye cancer in younger children. However, in rare cases, older children and adults can also get it.

Sometimes flash photography can show a ‘white glow’ in the eyes, which may indicate eye conditions such as refractive errors, eye cancer, and cataracts.

In this article, we take a look at whether a camera flash can detect eye cancer, what the white eye glow in photographs is, other signs of retinoblastoma, adults versus children, and when to contact a doctor.

Person holding a camera up in the air with the flash going offShare on Pinterest
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The phenomenon prompting the camera flash and eye cancer theory is the appearance of a white glow in people’s eyes in flash photographs. A camera flash emits a burst of intense light for a fraction of a second while taking a photograph. Sometimes, the flash causes a person to have red eyes or what looks like a white glow.

A 2022 study concludes that camera flash on mobile devices has the potential to serve as a screening tool for some eye conditions such as retinoblastoma. However, doctors require further research before they can implement this as a standardized healthcare practice.

It is important to note that domestic cameras are not designed for medical diagnostics, and doctors diagnose conditions such as eye cancer through comprehensive medical examinations. Some imaging tests and exams that healthcare professionals use to detect eye cancer include:

If a person has new or worsening issues with their eyes, it is important to consult a medical professional as soon as possible.

The white glow often seen in the eyes in photographs taken with a flash is known as leukocoria. It appears as a white, opaque, or yellowish spot in the pupil of the eye. This phenomenon may be more commonly known as ‘red eye’, ‘white pupil’, or ‘cat’s eye pupil’.

While it is true that retinoblastoma can cause this white glow, it is essential to recognize that leukocoria does not automatically indicate cancer. A 2023 review notes that 75% of cases of leukocoria were due to cataracts, and 21% retinoblastoma.

Other noncancerous conditions, such as refractive errors and retinal detachment, can also produce similar effects. Therefore, while a white glow in flash photographs may prompt concern, it is not a definitive sign of eye cancer.

To better understand the signs of retinoblastoma, it is important for people to be aware of additional indicators beyond the white glow in photographs.

Parents and caregivers should pay attention to symptoms and changes in their child’s eyes, such as:

  • eyes looking in different directions (crossed eyes)
  • poor or blurry vision
  • changes in the appearance of the pupil
  • pain or redness in the eye
  • infection around the eye
  • eyeball that is larger than normal
  • colored part of the eye and pupil look cloudy

Regular eye examinations in infants and young children can aid in early detection, enhancing the chances of successful treatment.

Retinoblastoma primarily affects children, with the majority of cases receiving a diagnosis before the age of 5. It is the most common eye cancer in children, accounting for 2% of all childhood cancers.

In adults, retinoblastoma is exceptionally rare, but a healthcare professional should promptly address symptoms such as vision changes or eye discomfort.

Adult eye cancer may relate to other factors, such as prolonged sun exposure or a history of certain conditions, such as:

Understanding when to contact a healthcare professional is important for addressing any potential eye health concerns. If a white glow or any other unusual appearance is consistently found in flash photographs, especially in children, it is advisable to schedule a comprehensive eye examination.

Additionally, any sudden changes in vision, persistent eye discomfort, or abnormalities in the appearance of the eyes should prompt a consultation with a healthcare professional. Early detection and intervention significantly improve the outcomes for eye-related conditions, whether cancerous or noncancerous.

While a white glow in flash photographs may raise concerns, it is important to recognize that this phenomenon does not automatically indicate cancer. Doctors diagnose retinoblastoma, an eye cancer primarily affecting children, through specialized medical examinations, not solely by analyzing flash photographs.

Parents and caregivers should be vigilant about any changes in their child’s eyes and seek professional medical advice when necessary.

In adults, the risk of eye cancer showing in camera flashes is minimal. Understanding the signs of eye cancer and knowing when to contact a doctor are essential components of maintaining eye health. Regular eye check-ups and consulting healthcare professionals will enable an accurate and timely diagnosis.