Floaters and Flashes

What are floaters?
Floaters, also referred to as spots, are small, cloudy particles within the vitreous, the gel-like fluid that fills the inside of your eyes. They appear as small specs, clouds or thread-like strands in your field of vision and are frequently visible when you look at a bright, even background like white paper or blue sky. They usually move as your eyes move and dart away when you try to look directly at them.

What causes them?

Sometimes small flecks of protein or other matter become trapped in the vitreous as the eye is developing. They remain in the vitreous after birth, resulting in floaters in your line of sight.

Floaters can also be related to aging. As you get older, the vitreous may start to thicken or shrink, forming clumps or strands inside the eye. The vitreous then pulls away from the back wall of the eye in a condition called posterior vitreous detachment – a common cause of floaters.

The most worrisome cause for floaters is the result of certain eye disease or injuries. These must be evaluated by an eye doctor. A sudden onset of significant floaters, especially if accompanied by flashes of light, should be evaluated promptly.

Who is most likely to have floaters?

Almost everyone sees floaters at some time, but they can occur more frequently and become more noticeable as you get older. Floaters caused by posterior vitreous detachment are more common in people who:
*Are nearsighted
*Have undergone cataract surgery
*Have had certain types of laser surgery
*Have had inflammation of the eye

Are floaters dangerous?

Floaters are usually harmless and rarely limit vision. But in some cases, floaters are an indication of a more serious problem. If the vitreous pulls away from the wall of the eye, the retina can tear, leading to retinal detachment. Retinal detachment is a serious, sight-threatening condition that requires surgery to repair.

How are floaters diagnosed and treated?

During a comprehensive eye exam, your eye care doctor will dilate your pupils with special drops, allowing a better view of the inside of your eyes. Special instruments will be used to observe the floaters and check for damage to the retina.
Floaters usually aren’t treatable, but many of them will fade over time and become less noticeable. If floaters are interfering with your vision, try moving your eyes quickly, looking up and down or side to side to shift them out of your line of sight.

What are flashes?

Flashes often accompany posterior vitreous detachment. When the vitreous shrinks, it can pull on the retina, which responds by sending an impulse to the brain that is seen as a flash of light. It’s the same sensation you experience when you are poked or hit in the eye and see “stars.”

Migraine headaches are sometimes preceded by flashes of light that appear as jagged lines or “heat waves.” These types of flashes are usually caused by a spasm of blood vessels in the brain, and may last for 10 to 20 minutes. When these flashes occur without the headache, it’s called ocular migraine.

When should you have your eyes examined?

Because floaters or flashes can be an indication of a serious problem, you should see your eye doctor when:

• You see Floaters for the first time
• You notice an increase in the number of floaters or their size
• You experience the sudden onset of flashes

In most cases, no serious problems are found, but a complete eye examination is important. If there is damage to the retina, it needs to diagnosed and treated immediately to prevent vision loss.

photo credit: Les fenêtres de l’âme via photopin (license)

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