Eye floaters are specks, flecks, spots, and cobwebs that appear in your field of vision. Eye flashes are flickers of light or the appearance of lightning bolts that are not actually there. Both are quite common: in fact, 7 out of 10 people have experienced either eye floaters or flashes. While eye floaters and flashes are generally harmless, they can sometimes be a warning sign of a medical emergency.
The eyes are filled with vitreous gel which helps maintain the eyes’ shape and allows light to pass through. The gel is fluid when we’re young, but it begins to thicken as we age. As the gel thickens, particles can become trapped inside of it, casting shadows as light passes through the eye. These shadows move with the gel around the eye, which creates the appearance of floating. Eye floaters are more visible when staring at light, clean backgrounds such as a white wall or an overcast sky.
These shadows can be caused by:
-Protein clumps in the gel: These clumps stay in the gel permanently and usually appear as squiggles, cobwebs, or circles.
-The gel shrinking and pulling on the retina, causing blood vessels to burst: This occurs when there’s a small hemorrhage in the eye. It can appear as black dots, a cloud of gnats, or smoke. The floaters will eventually dissipate when the blood is reabsorbed, but can last for several months.
-Posterior Vitreous Detachment (PVD): PVD occurs when the vitreous gel actually pulls away from the retina. The debris that is formed because of the dislodgement can be seen as floating specks and flecks.
Eye flashes are caused by the retina being physically touched or tugged, creating an electrical impulse which appears as a flash or a bolt of light.
When To Be Concerned
In most cases eye floaters and flashes are not dangerous and will dissipate over time. However, a sudden onset of floaters and flashes can indicate a retinal tear or detachment, which is a medical emergency.
When the retina is dislodged from the inner eye, it can create a small tear which may cause the vitreous gel to enter and push the retina even further away. If left untreated, it can cause significant and permanent vision loss. Other possible symptoms of retinal detachment are the loss of peripheral vision, the appearance of a shadow moving towards the middle of the eye, and blurred or distorted vision. Surgery is the only treatment for retinal detachment: if you experience any of these symptoms you should consult an eye doctor immediately. The sooner you seek medical attention, the better your chances are of having your vision saved.
In most cases eye floaters and flashes do not require any further treatment. However, in some cases they can become so irritating that medical treatment is warranted. The vitreous gel can be replaced by a saline solution through a procedure known as vitrectomy. Laser vitreolysis is also a new, safer, and highly effective treatment for floaters and flashes.
If you experience persistent eye floaters and flashes, consult an eye care professional today to determine if you need further treatment.