Demystifying Floaters: What They Are and What They Mean for Your Eyes

February 25th, 2019
senior man rubbing eyes

Floaters, those specks you can sometimes see floating across your visual field, are typically harmless — but a sudden increase in floaters and flashes in your vision can signal an emergency.

It’s happened to all of us — you’re looking at the sky or a blank wall, and you see a tiny squiggle moving in your vision. You try to look right at it, and it darts away. You’ve probably wondered what this floater means, and if this symptom is cause for concern

The good news is that in the majority of cases, floaters are normal and not harmful. Nonetheless, it’s important to be aware ahead of time that the presence of floaters, in conjunction with other symptoms, may actually signal a medical emergency.  

What Are Floaters?

Floaters may look like specks, dots, lines, or cobwebs in your vision, drifting across your eye but moving away when you try to look at them directly. They seem to be floating on the surface of your eye but are actually within the vitreous, the gel that fills your eyes and gives it a round shape. These clumps of gel or cells, cast shadows across your retina — shadows that you experience as floaters.

What Causes Floaters?

In many cases, floaters are caused by the vitreous shrinking, clumping, and sometimes actually detaching, which is more likely to happen as you age. The vitreous pulls away from the back of the eye, tugging on thin fibers and causing thread-like floaters in your vision. The floaters may also simply be debris or protein in the vitreous and are more common in nearsighted people.

In some cases, floaters are caused by infection, inflammation, or other injuries. You’re more likely to get floaters if you’ve had cataract surgery, for instance. Posterior uveitis inflames the uvea in the back of the eye, releasing inflammatory debris into the eye. It’s also possible that blood cells appear as floaters, as after surgery, or due to blocked blood vessels or hypertension.

Are Floaters Ever Dangerous?

Typically, floaters are not dangerous and are a normal part of aging. They will settle in the bottom of the eye, where they are out of the line of sight. Only in some serious cases, if the floaters are so dense that they affect vision, will a surgeon recommend operating. Vitrectomy surgery can remove the floaters and replace the vitreous with a saline solution — but the risks are high.

If the floaters are caused by blood, you should have your sight examined immediately, as this bleeding is more likely to be associated with vision loss. When the floaters are caused by vitreous detachment, this is typically not a threat to your sight and doesn’t require treatment. This is a common condition and usually does not lead to a torn or detached retina.

However, take note if you notice a sudden increase in floaters along with light flashes or a loss of peripheral vision. A study in Ophthalmology suggested that 39.7% of patients with these symptoms had a vitreous detachment — but 8.9% had a torn retina, which is likely to lead to a retinal detachment.

These may seem like low odds, but a retinal detachment, where the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye pulls away, is a serious condition. Even if you aren’t sure if you have a retinal detachment, you should treat this as an emergency situation, as the condition can lead to permanent vision loss or blindness within a matter of days if left untreated.

Treating Floaters

You can’t know for sure what is causing your floaters without a visit to the eye doctor — especially if you’ve recently had an eye procedure, or if you’re noticed sudden increases in floaters or flashes. For peace of mind, schedule a visit with the doctors at Kleiman Evangelista Eye Centers of Texas. And if you believe you may have a retinal detachment, be sure to treat that as a medical emergency. Your eyesight is too important to wait.

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