What Are Floaters?
Floaters are tiny clumps of fibers or cells inside the vitreous, the clear gel-like fluid that fills the inside of your eye. They can appear as little dots, circles, lines, clouds or cobwebs. You may see small specks or clouds moving in your field of vision. While they look as if 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.
What Causes Floaters?
The most common cause of floaters is aging of the vitreous. When people reach middle age, the vitreous gel may start to condense or shrink, forming clumps or strands from the supportive fibers of the vitreous. The vitreous gel pulls away from the back wall of the eye, causing a posterior vitreous detachment. While this detachment is more common in older people, people who are nearsighted and those who have had inflammation inside the eye, it is not serious. These floaters are harmless and usually fade over time or become less bothersome.
However, floaters may also be a symptom of a retinal tear, which is a serious problem. Sometimes, a minute amount of bleeding may occur if the shrinking vitreous gel pulls a small blood vessel away from the wall of the eye. These blood cells in the eye may appear as new floaters. However, the retina itself may also tear, causing a retinal detachment, which results in loss of vision unless it is treated.
The appearance of floaters should not be ignored, especially if they develop very suddenly. It is advisable for you to contact your eye doctor regardless of your age to determine the cause.
You should see your eye doctor as soon as possible if...
- You have never had floaters
- One new floater appears suddenly
- You see sudden flashes of light
- You notice other symptoms, like the loss of peripheral, or side, vision
What Causes Flashing Lights?
When the vitreous gel rubs or pulls on the retina, you may see what look 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 and then gradually fade. A very intense flash of light or loss of side vision suggests a retinal detachment. As we grow older, it is more common to experience low intensity flashes. However, if you notice the sudden appearance of bright light flashes or a change in your vision, you should contact your eye doctor immediately to rule out a detached retina.
The only treatment for a detached retina is surgery or laser. Floaters sometimes can be removed at the time of retinal surgery. There is no treatment for floaters other than removing the vitreous (vitrectomy), a major operation with many risks.