Eye floaters most commonly occur as a result of age-related changes in the vitreous. In the vitreous, there are millions of fine fibers that are intertwined. Over time, the vitreous changes in consistency and partially liquefies. As the vitreous shrinks and sags, it clumps up and gets stringy. Bits of this debris block some of the light passing through the eye, casting tiny shadows on the retina.
Floaters look like small specks moving in front of your eyes. Flashes look like lightening streaks.
They are usually not noticed until they become numerous or more prominent. Most people have floaters and learn to ignore them. But floaters and flashes may sometimes mean there is a problem with your retina.
Sometimes a section of the vitreous pulls the fine fibers away from the retina all at once, causing many new floaters to appear suddenly. This is called a vitreous detachment, which in most cases is not sight-threatening and requires no treatment. However, a sudden increase in floaters, possibly accompanied by light flashes or peripheral vision loss, could indicate a retinal detachment. A torn retina is serious and should always be considered an emergency.
So, if someone suddenly notices an increase in floaters or flashes, that person should see an ophthalmologist right away.
Floaters are more common when people reach middle age. As we age, the vitreous gel may start to thicken or shrink, forming clumps or strands inside the eye. The vitreous gel pulls away from the back wall of the eye, causing a posterior vitreous detachment. This is a common cause of floaters.
Posterior vitreous detachment is more common in people who are nearsighted, have undergone cataract operations, have had laser surgery of the eye, have had inflammation inside the eye.
As we grow older, it is more common to experience flashes.
Floaters may appear as different shapes, such as specks, clouds, dots, circles, lines, or cobwebs. A person can often see them when looking at a plain background like a blank wall or blue sky.
Flashes look like flashing lights or lightning streaks. They can appear off and on for several weeks, and become more common with age. Some people experience flashes of light that appear as jagged lines or heat waves in both eyes at once, lasting 10 to 20 minutes. These types of flashes are usually caused by a spasm of blood vessels in the brain, which is called migraine.
When an ophthalmologist examines the eyes, the pupils may be dilated with eyedrops. During this painless examination, doctor will carefully examine the inside of the eyes using special lenses and a lighted tool called an ophthalmoscope.
Floaters are harmless and fade over time or become less bothersome. These floaters do not require treatment.
However, suddenly seeing many new flashes of light or many new floaters, loss of side vision and distored vision are one of the warning signs of a retinal tear or detachment which requires treatment. The only treatment for a detached retina is surgery.