About eye floaters
What is eye floaters?
"Eye floaters" are deposits or condensation in the vitreous jelly of the eye. People use the term eye floaters to describe seeing floating spots within their vision when they look around. Eye floaters may be present in only one eye or both eyes.
Why do people notice eye floaters?
The structures in the front of the eye (the cornea and lens) focus rays of light onto the retina. Light focused onto the retina allows one to see. The light going to the retina passes through the vitreous humor, which is a jellylike material that occupies the back two-thirds of the eye. At birth and during childhood years, the vitreous gel is usually totally clear and transparent. Later in life, strands, deposits, or liquid pockets very commonly develop within the vitreous jelly. Each of these strands casts a small shadow onto the surface of the retina, and these shadows may be perceived by the patient as eye floaters. As the eye moves from side to side or up and down, these strands, deposits, or pockets also shift in position within the eye, making the shadows move and appear to float or undulate.
What do eye floaters look like?
People describe eye floaters as spots, straight and curved lines, strings, or "O" or "C"-shaped blobs. Some people see a single floater while others may think they see hundreds. The lines may be thick or thin, and they sometimes appear to be branched. To most people, they appear grey and darker in color than the background. The density of different eye floaters will vary within an individual eye. Eye floaters may be more noticeable under certain lighting conditions and be more apparent when looking at a bright sky. Floaters are rarely seen in situations with reduced illumination.
Like fingerprints, no two people have exactly identical patterns of eye floaters. If a person has eye floaters in both eyes, the pattern of the eye floaters in each eye will be different. In any eye that has eye floaters, that pattern of eye floaters may also change over time.
Eye floaters always appear darker than the background and cannot be seen in darkness or with the eyes closed. This is unlike flashes, which often are seen in the dark and with the eyes closed.
What are the symptoms for eye floaters?
Symptoms of eye floaters may include:
- Small Shapes in your vision that appear as dark specks or knobby, transparent strings of floating material
- Spots that move when you move your eyes, so when you try to look at them, they move quickly out of your visual field
- Spots that are most noticeable when you look at a plain bright background, such as a blue sky or a white wall
- Small shapes or strings that eventually settle down and drift out of the line of vision
When to see a doctor
Contact an eye specialist immediately if you notice:
- Many more eye floaters than usual
- A sudden onset of new floaters
- Flashes of light in the same eye as the floaters
- Darkness on any side or sides of your vision (peripheral vision loss)
These painless symptoms could be caused by a retinal tear, with or without a retinal detachment — a sight-threatening condition that requires immediate attention.
What are the causes for eye floaters?
Eye floaters may be caused by the normal aging process or as a result from other diseases or conditions:
- Age-related eye changes. As you age, the vitreous, or jelly-like substance filling your eyeballs and helping them to maintain their round shape, changes. Over time, the vitreous partially liquefies — a process that causes it to pull away from the eyeball's interior surface. As the vitreous shrinks and sags, it clumps and gets stringy. This debris blocks some of the light passing through the eye, casting tiny shadows on your retina that are seen as floaters.
- Inflammation in the back of the eye. Posterior uveitis is inflammation in the layers of the uvea in the back of the eye. This condition can cause the release of inflammatory debris into the vitreous that are seen as floaters. Posterior uveitis may be caused by infection, inflammatory diseases or other causes.
- Bleeding in the eye. Bleeding into the vitreous can have many causes, including diabetes, hypertension, blocked blood vessels and injury. Blood cells are seen as floaters.
- Torn retina. Retinal tears can occur when a sagging vitreous tugs on the retina with enough force to tear it. Without treatment, a retinal tear may lead to retinal detachment — an accumulation of fluid behind the retina that causes it to separate from the back of your eye. Untreated retinal detachment can cause permanent vision loss.
- Eye surgeries and eye medications. Certain medications that are injected into the vitreous can cause air bubbles to form. These bubbles are seen as shadows until your eye absorbs them. Certain vitreoretinal surgeries add silicone oil bubbles into the vitreous that can also be seen as floaters.
What are the treatments for eye floaters?
Any underlying cause of the floaters, such as bleeding from diabetes or inflammation, will be treated. However, most eye floaters don't require treatment. Eye floaters can be frustrating, and adjusting to them can take time. Once you know the floaters will not cause any more problems, you may eventually be able to ignore them or notice them less often.
If your eye floaters impair your vision, which happens rarely, you and your eye doctor may consider treatment. Options may include:
- Surgery to remove the vitreous. An ophthalmologist removes the vitreous through a small incision (vitrectomy) and replaces it with a solution to help your eye maintain its shape. Surgery may not remove all the floaters, and new floaters can develop after surgery. Risks of a vitrectomy include bleeding and retinal tears.
- Using a laser to disrupt the floaters. An ophthalmologist aims a special laser at the floaters in the vitreous, which may break them up and make them less noticeable. Some people who have this treatment report improved vision; others notice little or no difference. Risks of laser therapy include damage to your retina if the laser is aimed incorrectly. Laser surgery to treat floaters is used infrequently.
What are the risk factors for eye floaters?
Factors that can increase your risk of floaters include:
- Age over 50
- Eye trauma
- Complications from cataract surgery
- Diabetic retinopathy
- Eye inflammation