Floaters are small specks, lines or clouds moving in your field of vision. They are particularly noticeable when looking at a plain background, like a blank wall or blue sky. Floaters come in many different sizes and numbers, and they appear to move when the eye looks in different directions. Floaters are actually tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous, the clear jelly-like fluid that fills the inside of your eye. Although the floaters appear to be in front of the eye, they are actually floating in the vitreous inside the eye. What you see are the shadows they cast on the retina, the nerve layer at the back of the eye that senses light and allows you to see. Floaters can have different shapes: little dots, circles, lines, clouds or cobwebs.
What causes floaters?
The inside of the eye is filled with a clear, gel-like substance called the vitreous. The vitreous helps maintain the shape of the eye and allows light to pass through to the retina. The retina is a thin, light sensitive tissue that covers the inside back portion of the eye and works like the film in a camera. Floaters are small clumps of gel that form in the vitreous. The appearance of floaters may cause concern, especially if they develop suddenly. As people reach middle age, the vitreous gel may start to shrink, forming clumps or strands inside the eye. When this happens, the vitreous gel may pull away from the back wall of the eye, causing a posterior vitreous detachment. This is a common cause of floaters. A posterior vitreous detachment is more common for people whom: Are nearsighted; have undergone cataract operations; have had YAG laser surgery of the eye or have had inflammation inside the eye. The appearance of floaters may be alarming, especially if they develop suddenly. You should see your eye care professional right away if you suddenly develop new floaters, especially if you are over 45 years of age.
Are floaters ever 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 have your eyes examined as soon as possible, especially if new floaters appear suddenly or if you see sudden flashes of light. If you notice other symptoms, like the loss of side vision, or blurred or foggy vision you should return to your eye doctor.
What can be done about floaters?
You need to know if your retina is torn, so have your eyes examined if new floaters appear suddenly. Floaters can get in the way of clear vision, which may be quite annoying, especially if you are trying to read. You can try moving your eyes, looking up and then down to move the floaters out of the way. While some floaters may remain in your vision, many of them will fade over time and become less bothersome. Even if you have had some floaters for years, you should have an eye examination immediately if you notice new ones.
What causes flashing lights?
When the vitreous gel rubs or pulls on the retina, you may see what appears as flashing lights or lightning streaks. You may have experienced this same sensation if you have ever been hit in the eye and seen “stars”. When the vitreous rubs or pulls on the retina, it creates a sensation of flashing light. 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 have your eyes examined immediately to see if the retina has been torn.
Some people experience flashes of light that appear as jagged lines or “heat waves” in both eyes, often lasting 10-20 minutes. These types of flashes are usually caused by a spasm of blood vessels in the brain, which is called a migraine. If a headache follows the flashes, it is called a migraine headache. However, jagged lines or “heat waves” can occur without a headache. In this case, the light flashes are called an ophthalmic migraine, or a migraine without headache.
How are your eyes examined?
When an optometrist examines your eyes, your pupils will be dilated with eye drops. During this painless examination, your optometrist will carefully observe your retina and vitreous. Because your eyes have been dilated, you may need to make arrangements for someone to drive you home afterwards. 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 complete eye health examination by your optometrist or ophthalmologist to make sure there has been no damage to your retina.
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