Flashes and Floaters

Ophthalmology: Conditions & Procedures

Flashes and Floaters

Eye floaters are those tiny spots, specks, flecks and “cobwebs” that drift aimlessly around in your field of vision. While annoying, ordinary eye floaters and spots are very common and usually aren’t cause for alarm. Floaters and spots typically appear when tiny pieces of the eye’s gel-like vitreous break loose within the inner back portion of the eye.

 

Eye floaters can be clumpy or stringy; light or dark. They are caused by clumps or specks of undissolved vitreous gel material floating in the dissolved gel-like fluid (vitreous) in the back of the eye, which cast shadows on the retina when light enters the eye. Click on the image to see floaters in action. When we are born and throughout our youth, the vitreous has a gel-like consistency. But as we age, the vitreous begins to dissolve and liquefy to create a watery center.

 

Some undissolved gel particles occasionally will float around in the more liquid center of the vitreous. These particles can take on many shapes and sizes to become what we refer to as “eye floaters.”

 

You’ll notice that these spots and eye floaters are particularly pronounced if you gaze at a clear or overcast sky or a computer screen with a white or light-colored background. You won’t actually be able to see tiny bits of debris floating loose within your eye. Instead, shadows from these floaters are cast on the retina as light passes through the eye, and those tiny shadows are what you see.

 

You’ll also notice that these specks never seem to stay still when you try to focus on them. Floaters and spots move when your eye and the vitreous gel inside the eye moves, creating the impression that they are “drifting.”

When Are Eye Flashes and Floaters a Medical Emergency?

Noticing a few floaters from time to time is not a cause for concern. However, if you see a shower of floaters and spots, especially if they are accompanied by flashes of light, you should seek medical attention immediately from an eye care professional.

 

Floaters become more mobile and visible as the vitreous liquefies with age and separates from the retina. The sudden appearance of these symptoms could mean that the vitreous is pulling away from your retina a condition called posterior vitreous detachment. Or it could mean that the retina itself is becoming dislodged from the back of the eye’s inner lining, which contains blood, nutrients and oxygen vital to healthy function.

 

As the vitreous gel tugs on the delicate retina, it might cause a small tear or hole in it. When the retina is torn, vitreous can enter the opening and push the retina farther away from the inner lining of the back of the eye leading to a retinal detachment.

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