Eye Floaters

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 have a constant presence. Eye floaters usually vary in size and shape. Although they can appear in youth, most people who experience eye floaters are over the age of 50. Eye floaters can usually be seen when looking at plain, light-colored backgrounds (such as a wall or the sky) and may appear black, gray, white, or “see through.”

Eye Floaters Causes

Floaters in the eye are usually caused by age, but eye injuries or serious vision-threatening conditions such as retinal holes, tears, or detachments can cause them.

As we age, the vitreous humor (the jelly-like substance that fills the inner eye) begins to clump in certain areas. These “clumps” appear in our vision as floaters. As we get even older, the vitreous humor can loosen and detach from the back wall of the eye, forming more eye floaters. This condition is called a posterior retinal detachment and only your eye doctor can diagnose it. 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 a retinal detachment. Anything that causes a change in the structure of the vitreous humor will lead to eye floaters.

Very rarely, 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, or floaters.. These may or may not go away as the child ages.

The shape of one’s eye may also cause increased floaters. Nearsighted (myopic) people in particular have more floaters due to the increased length of the eye, which causes more changes in the vitreous, leading to more floaters. While most floaters are harmless, they can be the only symptom of a sight-threatening condition such as a retinal detachment. Retinal detachments are painless, and sometimes the only sign or symptom can be floaters and/or flashes of light.

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/trauma
  • Intraocular infections
  • Previous intraocular surgery such as cataract surgery or YAG laser surgery
  • Spontaneous tearing of the retina
  • Diabetes
  • Diagnosed retinal holes or tears

Diagnosing Eye Floaters

In most cases, eye floaters are visible to an eye doctor during a routine dilated 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 lenses and a head loupe. Your eye doctor will inspect your eyes to ensure that there are no retinal tears or damage. Whatever condition is causing the floaters, it will be diagnosed.

Eye Floaters Treatment

While eye floaters are usually harmless, it is a good idea to have an eye exam to ensure that there is not a disease causing them. There is no treatment for floaters unless they are caused by a retinal hole, tear, or detachment. In the event that the floaters were caused by a detachment or other retinal disease, laser surgery to treat the underlying problem may be necessary.

Anyone who has experienced new floaters or an increase in floaters should have their eyes examined by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist to diagnose the cause. 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 immediately to rule out a retinal detachment. People who have had eye surgery, who are diabetic, or who are very near-sighted are more prone to complications and should also see an eye care professional annually.

Prognosis of Eye Floaters

In most cases eye floaters are a harmless part of the normal aging process of the eye. 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 increase in number or size.

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?
  • When should I consider my floaters an emergency?
  • Are there over-the-counter medications that will reduce my floaters?

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 12/2014