Floaters and Flashes

You may sometimes see small specks or clouds moving in your field of vision. These are called floaters. You can often see them when looking at a plain background, like a blank wall or blue sky. Floaters are actually tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous, the clear gel-like fluid that fills the inside of your eye. While these objects look like they are in front of your eye, they are actually floating inside it. What you see are the shadows they cast on the retina, the layer of cells lining the back of the eye that senses light and allows you to see. Floaters can appear as different shapes such as little dots, circles, lines, clouds, or cobwebs.

What Causes Floaters?

When people reach middle age, the vitreous gel may start to thicken or shrink, forming clumps or strands inside the eye. The vitreous gel pulls away from the back wall of the eye, causing a posterior vitreous detachment. This is a common cause of floaters.

Posterior vitreous detachment is more common in people who:

  • are nearsighted
  • have undergone cataract operations
  • have had YAG laser surgery of the eye
  • have had inflammation inside the eye

The appearance of floaters may be alarming, especially if they develop very suddenly. You should contact your ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.) right away if you develop new floaters, especially if you are over 45 years of age.

Are Floaters Serious?

The retina can tear if the shrinking vitreous gel pulls away from the wall of the eye. This sometimes causes a small amount of bleeding in the eye that may appear as new floaters. A torn retina is always a serious problem since it can lead to a retinal detachment.

You should see your ophthalmologist as soon as possible if:

  • Even if one new floater appears suddenly
  • You see sudden flashes of light

If you notice other symptoms, like the loss of side vision, you should see your ophthalmologist.

Can Floaters be Removed?

Floaters may be a symptom of a tear in the retina, which is a serious problem. If a retinal tear is not treated, the retina may detach from the back of the eye. The only treatment for a detached retina is surgery. Other floaters are harmless and fade over time or become less bothersome, requiring no treatment. Even if you have floaters for years, you should schedule an eye examination with your ophthalmologist if you suddenly notice new ones.

Some people may have particularly large or opaque vitreous floaters that can be very bothersome and interfere with regular activities. Vitrectomy can be performed to remove floaters in select patients. Your physician can tell you more about the potential benefit and risks, and if you are an appropriate candidate for the procedure.

What Causes Flashing Lights?

When the vitreous gel rubs or pulls on the retina, you may see what looks like flashing lights or lightning streaks. You may have experienced this same sensation if you have ever been hit in the eye and seen “stars.”

The flashes of light can appear off and on for several weeks or months. As we grow older, it is more common to experience flashes. If you notice the sudden appearance of light flashes, you should contact your ophthalmologist immediately in case the retina has been torn.

Floaters and flashes of light become more common as we grow older. While not all floaters and flashes are serious, you should always have a medical eye examination by an ophthalmologist to make sure there has been no damage to your retina.