When you're staring at the blue sky, a bright computer screen, or a monochromatic wall, you may notice little shadows or flecks floating around in your vision. While discovering abnormalities in your vision may feel disconcerting, the specks you're seeing are called floaters, and they're a common occurrence in the human eye. In many cases they aren't cause for concern, but you should always know when they indicate a more serious problem.
WHAT IS A FLOATER?
Floaters typically look like little clear spots, flecks, shadows, or cobwebs that move around in your vision. They might be shaped like spots, strands, or squiggles. When you see them, you're not actually staring at the pieces of your vitreous, but the shadows that they cast on your retina. That's why they're more obvious when you're in good lighting and when you're staring at a consistent background.
If you have floaters, don't panic. Floaters are nothing to worry about; in many cases they're a benign quirk of the eye, and many people experience them.
WHAT CAUSES THEM?
Inside your eye is the gel-like vitreous, which fills the eye and connects with the retina. As you age, the vitreous changes consistency. Sometimes the middle becomes more liquid, while other parts start to dissolve or disconnect from the retina. That's what a floater is: a slightly harder piece of vitreous floating through the center of your eye.
WHEN ARE THEY CAUSE FOR CONCERN?
If you notice one or two new floaters every so often, you don't need to worry. Sometimes you'll notice a bunch of new floaters at once. In some cases, that just means a larger part of the vitreous fluid came detached from your retina and formed several floaters. Make sure to ask your eye care professional to check out the new floaters, but if you experience no other symptoms, they may be benign.
When you experience a shower of floaters, however, they often indicate a more serious problem. Lots of new floaters combined with the sensation of flashing lights like lightning bolts or sparks, or with peripheral vision loss, can indicate that you have a retinal tear or a detached retina. Visit your eye care professional right away when you experience these symptoms because retinal tears frequently develop into detached retinas without treatment.
Infection, inflammation, and sudden eye injury also cause floaters to appear suddenly in the eye.
CAN YOU TREAT THEM?
Image via Flickr by National Eye Institute
In many cases, floaters will settle at the bottom of your eye and shouldn't bother you much. They don't go away completely, but when they're benign you don't need treatment for them. If you have so many floaters that they interfere with your vision, however, your eye care professional may recommend a vitrectomy, in which the vitreous fluid is replaced with a synthetic version.
If you have floaters, questions about your vision, or other symptoms, contact your eye care professional immediately. Only he or she can tell you if your floaters are benign or indicative of a more serious problem.