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 and occur most commonly as a result of age-related changes to the vitreous humor, the jelly-like substance that fills the inside of the eye.
They usually can be seen most easily when you look at a plain background, like a blank wall or blue sky and may look like specks, strands, webs or other shapes. Actually what you are seeing are the shadows tiny microscopic clumps of vitreous fibers or cells that are casting a shadow on the retina, the light- sensitive lining of the back of the eye.
If you notice a sudden increase in the number of floaters and/or also see flashes of light or lose a portion of your peripheral vision, contact your eye care specialist immediately. These painless symptoms may be a sign of a serious retinal tear or retinal detachment. Prompt attention to either of these is important to preserving sight.
What causes floaters and spots?
Some floaters 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 may also pull away from the back wall of the eye, causing a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). PVD is a common cause of floaters.
Floaters are also more common among people who:
- Over 50 years of age
- Are nearsighted.
- Have undergone cataract surgery.
- Have had laser surgery of the eye.
- Have had inflammation inside the eye.
- Have had eye trauma
- Have diabetic retinopathy
Treatment for floaters and spots
Most spots and floaters in the eye are harmless and merely annoying. Many will fade over time or settle down to the bottom of the vitrous cavity out of the line of sight. In rare instances, they become so numerous that they significantly interfere with a patient's vision. It is extremely uncommon, but if these had to be removed, a surgical procedure called a vitrectomy would be suggested.
Flashes of light
You may also see flashes of light. These flashes occur more often in older people, and usually are caused by mechanical stimulation of photoreceptors when the gel-like vitreous occasionally tugs on the light-sensitive retina. They may be a warning sign of a detached retina – a very serious problem that could lead to significant vision loss or 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 a 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.
However, 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, visit your eye doctor immediately.