What Are Eye Floaters?
If you’ve ever noticed strange squiggly lines, spots, or cobwebs in your vision that dart away when you try to look at them, you may have floaters.
They move with your eyes, so you’ll never be able to look directly at them. When your eyes stop moving, floaters continue to drift across your vision. You may notice them more when looking at the bright sky or a white piece of paper.
Floaters are a natural part of aging. They’re small clumps or stings of proteins and collagen floating in the vitreous that cast shadows on the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of your eye.
Most people will experience floaters at some point, and many have floaters that come and go. Often, floaters won’t need treatment and will eventually settle below your line of sight. However, if you experience a sudden onset of floaters or floaters accompanied by flashes of light, call your optometrist immediately. They may be a sign of a bigger problem.
The Difference Between Floaters and Flashes
Flashes are bright spots or streaks of light in your field of vision. They occur when pressure is put on the retina. Many patients describe them as “lightning streaks” or “shooting stars.”
Many people will see the occasional flash of light as they age. This is because the vitreous starts to shrink and can pull at the retina, causing flashes. You can also see flashes if you’re hit in the eye or rub your eyes too hard, both of which put pressure on the retina.
The occasional flash of light is usually nothing to worry about, but you should still mention that you see them during your eye exam. Your optometrist can discuss them with you and perform the tests needed to rule out anything more serious.
Common Causes of Floaters
Most eye floaters are a normal part of the aging process, but some eye diseases can also cause them, and there are many reasons you may experience floaters.
The vitreous is largely responsible for maintaining the shape of your eye. It’s a gel-like, transparent substance that takes up 80% of your eye. It’s clear to allow light to pass through it easily. It’s made of 99% water with trace amounts of hyaluronic acid, sugar, salt, proteins, and collagen.
As we age, the vitreous can start to liquefy, shrink, and shift, which causes it to pull away from the eye’s interior surface—a condition called posterior vitreous detachment. The collagen and proteins in the vitreous can also start to clump together, forming little strings that float in the vitreous, casting shadows on the retina.
Inflammation in the Eye
Posterior uveitis is inflammation that occurs at the back of the eye. It can release inflammatory debris into the vitreous, which casts shadows. Uveitis has many causes, but posterior uveitis is quite rare.
Bleeding in the Eye
Bleeding within the eye caused by hypertension, blocked blood vessels, or injuries, can send blood into the vitreous. These tiny blood cells are seen as floaters.
When the vitreous shrinks with age, it can detach from the retina, causing a sudden onset of floaters. Although this usually doesn’t cause any issues, sometimes this detachment can tear the retina.
A retinal tear requires medical attention and can lead to retinal detachment and vision loss if not treated.
When Floaters Are a Problem
Sometimes, floaters can be a sign of a more serious condition that can cause vision loss. A sudden onset of floaters, especially accompanied by flashes of light, can indicate a retinal tear or retinal detachment.
Retinal detachment in an eye emergency and requires immediate medical attention to prevent vision loss.
This condition is painless, so it’s essential to be aware of the warning signs:
- A sudden appearance of floaters and flashes of light
- A gradual dimming of vision, like a curtain being drawn across a window
- A rapid decline in central vision, which can happen when the macula detaches
Is There a Treatment for Floaters?
If Floaters Impair Your Vision
Rarely, floaters can impair your vision. In these cases, your optometrist will consider treatment. Treatment options include:
- Vitrectomy: A vitrectomy is a surgical procedure that removes the vitreous and replaces it with a solution, like saline, to help the eye maintain its shape. This surgery doesn’t always remove all floaters, and sometimes floaters can come back.
- Laser treatment: This treatment involves using a laser to break up floaters to make them less noticeable. Laser treatment is used infrequently because the results are inconsistent.
Living with Floaters
The good news is that floaters don’t usually need treatment if they’re not a symptom of another condition. Many patients can learn to ignore their floaters. Sometimes, floaters become less noticeable or settle out of sight.
But sometimes floaters stick around and can become irritating. Some doctors will perform laser treatment on benign floaters, but the risk from surgery is greater than the problem caused by the floaters themselves.
If your floaters are really bothering you, try moving your eyes up and down or lift and right. This movement may shift your floaters and grant you some momentary relief.