Eye Floaters and Flashes

Floaters in the Eye

Eye Floaters, also known as vitreous floaters or eye spots, are tiny specks, circles, or thread-like clouds that appear in your field of vision. They are a common occurrence, and they can appear periodically or they can be a constant presence. Eye floaters usually vary in size and shape. Although they can appear at birth, most people who experience eye floaters are over the age of 50. To people who have looked at microscopic cells under a microscope, eye floaters may seem similar in appearance. Eye floaters can usually be seen when looking at plain, light-colored backgrounds.

Eye Floaters

Eye Floaters Causes

Floaters in the eye are usually caused by age, but eye injuries or other circumstances can also cause them—for example, rubbing the eyes excessively throughout one’s lifetime.

As we age, the vitreous humor (the jelly-like substance that fills the inner eye and helps stabilize the eye) begins to clump in certain areas. These are eye floaters. As we get even older, the vitreous humor loosens and detaches from the back wall of the eye, forming more eye floaters. If an eye injury is severe enough to change the structure of the vitreous humor, this too can form eye floaters; it can also lead to retinal detachment. Anything that causes a change in the structure of the vitreous humor will lead to eye floaters.

Migraines or high blood pressure can cause flashes of light along with eye floaters. When these symptoms occur, an eye care professional should diagnose the condition.

Some of the blood vessels and cells present in the vitreous when we are in the womb may remain after birth. On occasion, the entire artery that nourishes the back of the lens remains inside the vitreous after birth. These leftovers cause mild shadows in the vision, which we refer to as floaters. These may or may not go away as the child ages.

The shape of one’s eye may also cause floaters. Nearsighted people in particular almost always have a certain number of floaters because of the shape of their eyes.

Common Risks for Floaters

You may be at a higher risk for developing floaters if you are over the age of 50, or if you have:

  • Myopia (nearsightedness)
  • Uveitis (inflammation inside the eye)
  • An eye injury
  • Intraocular infections
  • Previous intraocular surgery such as cataract surgery or YAG laser surgery
  • Spontaneous tearing of the retina
  • Diabetes
  • Small, slow-moving shapes appear and disappear in your vision
  • Flashes of light appear in vision
  • Sometimes accompanied by migraine headaches

Symptoms of Eye Floaters

  • Small, slow-moving shapes appear and disappear in your vision
  • Flashes of light appear in vision
  • Sometimes accompanied by migraine headaches

Diagnosing Eye Floaters

In most cases, eye floaters are visible to an eye doctor during a routine eye examination. To diagnose eye floaters, your eye doctor will thoroughly go over your medical history and ask you to describe the appearance of your eye floaters, including the size, shape, and frequency of them. Looking through your dilated pupils, your eye doctor will examine the vitreous fluid and retina using a combination of microscope lenses and a head loupe. Your eye doctor will also inspect your eyes to ensure that there are no retinal tears or damage. Whatever condition is causing the floaters, it will be diagnosed and treated.

Eye Floaters Treatment

Although eye floaters are usually harmless, there are treatments for them. People who see flashing lights or experience an increase in the number or size of their eye floaters should be examined by an eye care professional. People who have had eye surgery or who are diabetic or very near-sighted are more prone to complications and should also see an eye care professional. In the unlikely event that surgery is needed to remove eye floaters, laser treatments are available.

Prognosis of Eye Floaters

In most cases eye floaters are a harmless part of the normal aging process. Treatment for myopia may reduce occurrences, but floaters may return with age. Floaters do not typically cause problems other than annoyance.

Preventing Eye Floaters

Eye floaters cannot be prevented, especially after the age of 50, but caring for your eyes throughout your life can reduce the risk of developing conditions such as cataracts and myopia, both of which may lead to floaters. The sudden onset of floaters and flashes of light may indicate a more serious problem and should be considered a medical emergency. Routine eye examinations and regular visits with your eye doctor can help to diagnose eye conditions during their early stages, which may prevent eye floaters from developing. Learn more about Healthy Eyes.

Complications of Eye Floaters

In general, eye floaters are harmless and cause more of a nuisance than anything else. In some cases where the floaters are due to an undiagnosed medical condition such as a retinal detachment, complications may occur that could cause the floaters to grow larger. If the floaters continue to grow in size they may reduce your visual acuity and may even cause some degree of vision loss.

Talking to Your Eye Doctor

Here are some questions to ask your eye doctor about eye floaters:

  • Are my eye floaters harmless? What is causing my floaters?
  • How quickly do eye floaters grow in size?
  • When should I consider my floaters an emergency?
  • Are there over-the-counter medications that will reduce my floaters?
  • Which treatment options are available?
  • Which eye vitamins can improve my situation?

Did you know…Approximately 98 percent of people with floaters have a harmless type of vitreous detachment?

References:
  • R. Abel, Jr., MD “The Eye Care Revolution” (Kensington Books, 2004) 89-91
  • J. DiGirolamo, MD “The Big Book of Family Eye Care” (Basic Health Publications, Inc. 2011) 41-42; 183-184
This article was last updated on 07/2014