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One Pupil Dilated

I received a panicked call from my younger sister today. She is the mother of one-year-old identical twin girls, born slightly prematurely. During her pregnancy she had a problem with twin-twin transfusion syndrome and had to lie on one side for many weeks to ensure that both girls received an adequate blood supply. She delivered by Cesarean section and fortunately both girls have been doing well. That is, until a few hours ago.

My sister described an episode in which her daughter was in the bathtub and suddenly had one of her pupils become very large. It remained dilated for several minutes, which caused her to call her husband in to take a look. He confirmed that the eye was dilated and they decided to call me right away because they’d heard that a dilated pupil might have something to do with concussions or head injuries, though the little girl had not had any recent trauma to her head.

I tried to get a full history from them – they said she was acting “totally normally” – the usual peeing, pooping, eating checks were fine. They said she was sleeping well, not vomiting or lethargic, and that her pupil had now (after several minutes) returned to normal size. They said her fontanel was not bulging, and when I asked them to shine a light in her eyes they both constricted immediately.

My sister asked me, “what could this be?”

Ugh. I’m not a pediatrician, nor an ophthalmologist, but I do know that asymmetric pupils are usually an ominous sign. All I could think of was “space occupying lesion” but I didn’t want to scare my sister unnecessarily. All the other history sounded so reassuring (the child was well, with no apparent behavior changes, the eye had returned to normal, etc.) that I had to say that they should get in touch with the pediatrician on-call.

And here’s where things got confusing. My mother called me by coincidence just after I hung up the phone with my sister. She had been visiting with the babies for a full week, and slept next to their cribs during their vacation. I told my mom about the pupil issue, and she started relaying some potential “symptoms” that she had witnessed over the past week or so. She claimed that the baby had indeed vomited recently, that her behavior was different than her twin (more irritable and emotionally labile) and that her sleep patterns were also disrupted.

Now I was more concerned – was this early hydrocephalus or maybe even brain cancer? Would I be responsible for missing a diagnosis? I was thousands of miles away from the infants and trying to piece together a story from historians with different observations. So I called some pediatrician friends of mine and asked what they made of this. One said – “anisocoria is a concerning symptom in an infant, she needs a CT or MRI to rule out a tumor pressing on her eye nerve. She should go to the ER immediately.” The other said that since there were no other current symptoms, and the eye was back to normal, it should be worked up by an ophthalmologist as an outpatient.

What a bind to be in – I have some witnesses describing very concerning symptoms, others suggesting that everything’s fine except for a fleeting period of pupil size mis-match. I have dear friends suggesting everything from an immediate ER visit with sedation of the child and a head CT or MRI to watchful waiting and distant outpatient follow up. And I have my sister relying on my judgment (as a non-pediatrician) to tell her what to do.

Here’s what I did – I got my sister and her husband on the phone and explained to them that I take their observation of pupillary dilatation very seriously. I explained that this is not a normal event, and should be followed up by an expert to make sure that there’s no underlying cause of the eye symptoms. I also said that the fact that the baby is acting normally and the eye is no longer dilated are reassuring observations. I told them that they should keep a close eye on the infant, and that if they see any hint of recurrence of the pupil problem, or anything out of the ordinary like vomiting, inconsolability, lethargy, swollen fontanel, fever, or strange body movements or seizures, they should go to the ER immediately. In the meantime they should alert the doctor on-call to the situation and discuss everything with their pediatrician during her next available office hours.

I hope that was the right approach. I will not rest easily until the baby has been fully examined by an expert. Being a doctor carries with it a lot of anxiety and personal responsibility – at any time of the day or night your peace of mind can be uprooted by an abnormal finding relayed to you by friend, family, or patient. And if anything goes wrong – or if interventions are not achieved at an optimal speed and accuracy, this question will forever plague you: “Should I have done something differently?”

Who knew that my relaxing Sunday afternoon would be turned upside down by a dilated pupil?This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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5 Responses to “One Pupil Dilated”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Is your niece on meds – is/was your sister on meds during the pregnancy ?

    ( Any side effects coming out on your niece ? )

  2. ValJonesMD says:

    Thank you all for your concern! The baby is not on any medications (nor is anyone in the household an asthmatic). I asked about exposure to chemicals, and they couldn’t think of any. She was in the bathtub being washed with soap and water (using baby shampoo). Dr. Nemerson’s response is very reassuring – and I’m so glad that I didn’t give the wrong advice. It’s scary to have to weigh in on an issue that is not within your specialty… I will let you all know what the follow up studies show (and yes, radiation to the head – via a CT – should be avoided if possible.)

  3. kristaly says:

    Hi Val,

    I’m a pediatrician and I have seen this before in healthy infants.  Anisocoria can be a normal variant and is much more obvious in a darkened room.  So if they were bathing her in dim light, it might have been more noticable.  In an otherwise healthy-appearing baby, I’d just have her see a peds optho as soon as possible.

    Dr. Krista

  4. PearlsAndDreams says:

    Thinking about you and niecey girl tonight! (and her Mamma of coarse) prayers going upward

  5. RH Host Melissa says:

    Oh how scary Dr. Val.! Please keep us updated when you can.  Take care.

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