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Have you ever seen small specks or debris that looks like pieces of lint floating in your field of view?  These are called “floaters,” and they are usually normal and harmless.  They usually can be seen most easily when you look at a plain background, like a blank wall or blue sky. Floaters are actually tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous – the clear, jelly-like fluid that fills the inside of your eye.

 

Symptoms of floaters and spots

Floaters may look like specks, strands, webs or other shapes.  If a spot or shadowy shape passes in front of your field of vision or to the side, you are seeing a floater.  Because they are inside your eye and suspended within the gel-like vitreous, they move with your eyes when you try to see them.

What causes floaters and spots?

Some floaters and spots are present since birth as part of the eye’s development and others occur over time.  When people reach middle age, the gel-like vitreous begins to liquefy and contract.  Some parts of the vitreous form clumps or strands inside the eye.  The vitreous gel pulls away from the back wall of the eye, causing a posterior vitreous detachment – a common cause of floaters. Floaters and spots are also more common among people who:

  • Are highly nearsighted
  • Have undergone cataract surgery
  • Have had laser surgery of the eye
  • Have had inflammation inside the eye

Treatment for floaters and spots

Most spots and floaters in the eye are harmless and merely annoying.  Many will fade over time and become less bothersome.  In severe cases, people may become interested in a surgical procedure called a vitrectomy to remove the floaters.  Although beneficial, this invasive procedure has some risks and most retinal surgeons are usually not willing to perform the procedure unless the floaters disrupt daily activities.

Flashes of light

You may also see flashes of light.  These flashes usually are caused by mechanical stimulation of retinal cells when the vitreous membrane pulls on the retina.  Flashes of light may be a warning sign of a detached retina – a very serious problem that could lead to blindness if not treated quickly. 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 an ocular migraine headache.  However, jagged lines or “heat waves” can occur without a headache.  In this case, the light flashes are called an ocular migraine, or a migraine without a headache. The sudden appearance of a significant number of floaters, especially if they are accompanied by flashes of light or other vision disturbances, could indicate a retinal detachment or other serious problem in the eye.  If you suddenly see new floaters associated with flashes of light, visit your eye doctor immediately.