Eye Floaters and Flashes

December 18, 2017

Occasionally, tiny specks, “cobwebs” and spots may enter your line of vision. Often, these floaters are not cause for alarm, but are a natural part of the aging process. However, in some instances, especially when accompanied with flashes of light, they can signal serious medical issues. Read below to learn more about eye floaters and flashers.

Eye Floaters

Floaters appear as small spots that drift through a field of vision. They often stand out when staring at something bright, such as a white piece of paper. Floaters come in many different shapes:

  • Black or gray dots
  • Squiggly lines
  • Threadlike strands, which can be knobby and almost see-through
  • Cobwebs
  • Rings

While floaters may annoy you, they should not interfere with your vision. 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. The vitreous has a gel-like consistency at birth, but as people age it begins to dissolve and liquefy, creating a watery center. Occasionally, undissolved particles will float around in the liquid center. The floaters that you see are shadows cast on the retina as these particles pass through the eye.

Causes of Floaters

As you age, the protein fibers that make up the vitreous shrink down and clump together. These changes can happen at any age, but most often occur between the ages of 50 and 70. Those who are nearsighted or have had cataract surgery are more likely to experience floaters.

Other causes of floaters include:

Serious eye disorders associated with floaters include:

  • Detached retina
  • Torn retina
  • Bleeding in your vitreous
  • Inflamed vitreous or retina caused by infections or an autoimmune condition
  • Eye tumors

The sudden appearance of floaters accompanied by flashes of light could signal that the vitreous is pulling away from the retina, which is called posterior vitreous attachment. These symptoms may also indicate that 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 eye functions. If you experience these issues, seek medical attention immediately.

Flashers

When light enters the eye, it stimulates the retina. This produces an electrical impulse, which the optic nerve transmits to the brain. The brain then interprets this impulse as light or some type of image. If the retina is mechanically stimulated (physically touched or tugged), a similar electrical impulse is sent to the brain. This impulse is then interpreted as a “flash” of light. If the retina is tugged, torn or detached, the flash is commonly noticed. These flashes may be temporary or continue until the retina is repaired.

Flashes may occur if the vitreous gel is shaken during a blow to the head. This phenomenon is referred to as “seeing stars”.

When to See a Doctor

A small number of floaters over a long period of time is normal. However, seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of the following:

  • A sudden increase in the number of floaters
  • Flashes of light
  • A loss of side vision
  • Changes that come on quickly and get worse over time
  • Floaters after eye surgery or eye trauma
  • Eye pain

If floaters annoy you, try to clear them from your vision. Move your eyes to shift the fluid around, up and down usually works better than side to side.

If you have questions about floaters and flashers, don’t hesitate to contact us and set up an appointment.

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