Flashes & Floaters
What are floaters?
Floaters, also referred to as spots, are small, cloudy particles within the vitreous, the gel-like fluid that fills the inside of your eyes. They appear as small specks, clouds or thread-like strands in your field of vision and are frequently visible when you look at a light background like white paper or blue sky. They usually move as your eyes move and dart away when you try to look directly at them.
What causes floaters?
Sometimes small flecks of protein or other matter become trapped in the vitreous as the eye is developing. They remain in the vitreous after birth, resulting in floaters in your line of sight.
Floaters can also be related to aging. As you get older, the vitreous may start to thicken or shrink, forming clumps or strands inside the eye. The vitreous then pulls away from the back wall of the eye in a condition called posterior vitreous detachment — a common cause of floaters. Floaters can also be caused by certain eye diseases or injuries.
Who is most likely to have floaters?
Almost everyone sees floaters at some time, but they can occur more frequently and become more noticeable as you get older. Floaters caused by posterior vitreous detachment are more common in people who:
Have undergone cataract surgery
Have had certain types of laser surgery
Have had inflammation of the eye
Are floaters dangerous?
See your eye care professional when:
• You see floaters for the first time
• You notice an increase in the number of floaters and their size
• You experience the sudden onset of flashes
Floaters are usually harmless and rarely limit vision. But in some cases, floaters are an indication of a more serious problem. If the vitreous pulls away from the wall of the eye, the retina can tear, leading to retinal detachment. Retinal detachment is a serious, sight-threatening condition that requires a major surgical procedure to repair.
How are floaters diagnosed?
During a comprehensive eye exam, your eye care professional will dilate your pupils with special drops, allowing a better view of the inside of your eyes. Then special instruments will be used to observe the floaters and check for damage to the retina.
What can be done about floaters?
Floaters usually aren’t treatable, but many of them will fade over time and become less noticeable. If floaters are interfering with your vision, try moving your eyes quickly, looking up and down or side-to-side to shift them out of your line of sight.
What are flashes?
Flashes often accompany posterior vitreous detachment. When the vitreous shrinks, it can pull on the retina, which responds by sending an impulse to the brain that is seen as a flash of light. It’s the same sensation you experience when you are poked or hit in the eye and see “stars”.
Migraine headaches are sometimes preceded by flashes of light that appear as jagged lines or heat waves. These types of flashes are usually caused by a spasm of blood vessels in the brain and may last for 10 to 20 minutes. When these flashes occur without the headache, it’s called an ophthalmic migraine.
In most cases, no serious problems are found, but a complete eye examination is important. If there is damage to the retina, it needs to be diagnosed and treated immediately to prevent vision loss.