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Spots, flashes and floaters

Floaters are a common sight for many people. The term is a catchall for the specks, threads, or cobweb-like structures in your vision.

As we age the vitreous slowly shrinks becoming a bit stringy as it breaks up. These strands can cast shadows on the retina, causing us to see eye floaters. The shrinking vitreous can tug on the retina and pull away from it. This event, called a posterior vitreous detachment, is common, and usually doesn’t threaten vision.

Signs of trouble

  • Sudden onset of floaters, often with flashes.
  • A “swarm” of little floaters like a group of dusty specs in your vision.
  • A sudden change in what an old floater looks like, or lots of new ones.
  • Gradual shading or dimming of vision from one side (like a curtain being drawn across).
  • Rapid decline in sharp, central vision.
  • Wrinkles and wobbles in your vision.

Floaters and flashes can signal a condition that can lead to vision loss and can be a sign of traction pulling on the retina which may cause the retina to tear, separate or detach and can lead to permanent vision loss. Retinal tears and detachments are painless, so you don’t feel them happening.

Because there is little difference between what safe floaters and more serious ones look like, it is important to have your eye carefully examined promptly. It is important to get this done as soon as possible because retinal injury can be successfully repaired if caught in time.

The optometrist will make time to see you as soon as possible and will need to use eyedrops that dilate your pupils to properly examine your eyes.

What are floaters?

Floaters are strands or dark blobs that seem suspended in your vision. They often seem to bob and float in front of you and will probably swish around as you move your eye. They can be subtle and barely noticeable or visually devastating. They can appear gradually or suddenly and may be single or multiple.

What you are seeing are shadows from condensations, folds and opacities in the clear gel (vitreous humour) behind your pupil inside your eye. They are inside your eye!

Who can get floaters?

Floaters appear more commonly in people who are myopic (short sighted), who have had cataract surgery or a previous eye injury, as well as people with diabetes but anyone can get them. Most people learn to tolerate floaters, but some do find them a nuisance. They are distracting and disrupt your ability to read.

Floaters move as your eyes move. They appear to zoom away when you try to look directly at them, and typically drift slowly back when your eyes stop moving.

What are flashes?

Eye flashes are sparks, strands, or arcs of light that flicker across your visual field. These occur when the vitreous gel bumps, rubs, or tugs against the retina. Like floaters, flashes are generally harmless and require no treatment. Although they can be a warning sign of trouble particularly when they appear suddenly or become more plentiful.

Living with floaters

If your floaters aren’t a sign of retinal damage above, they often disappear completely or become less noticeable. Sometimes ophthalmologists perform surgery or laser treatment for benign floaters when they are very disruptive to vision. But for most people the risk to vision of the surgery is greater than the problem posed by the floater. If floaters become a nuisance, moving your eyes up and down, or left and right can shift the floater and provide temporary relief.