Floaters and Flashes

What are Floaters?

Floaters appear inside your eyes and look like small black spots, strands of cobweb or pieces of hair and they can be semi-transparent or dark. They are the result of the jelly within your eye (vitreous gel) becoming more liquid in places and strands/aggregates of collagen/cells floating within it. Floaters are very common and are normally harmless, being commonly associated with short sighted or advancing age. If somebody has had these for years, the eyes and the brain learn to ignore them, but a sudden increase in the amount of floaters can be a sign of problems inside the eye. As they float in the jelly of the eye one can never look directly at them because they move away as the eye moves. If there is only a small amount of floaters in the eye, they may only be visible when you look at a light coloured surface or at the sky in daylight.

Occasionally some people also notice flashes of light in their vision. This can be caused by the movement of the gel inside the eye which pulls on the retina. In a few cases, flashes or an increase in floaters can also be a sign of retinal detachment, which needs urgent medical attention. This is more common in the case of people who are very short sighted, or have had eye operations such as cataract surgery.


Seek urgent advice if you have:

  • A sudden increase in floaters, especially if you also notice flashing lights.
  • A new, large floater.
  • A change in floaters or flashing lights after having a direct blow to the eye.
  • A shadow which is spreading across the vision of one of your eyes.


Why do Floaters appear?

While some people are born with floaters, in other cases they may occur as one gets older and the gel in the eye, called vitreous humour, naturally shrinks. The gel then disintegrates into a watery fluid and wavy collagen fibrils which appear as line-shaped floaters. Occasionally the gel shrinks enough to exfoliate from the retina, in which case people see a large floater in the shape of a ring.


What do I do if I have Floaters?

For some people floaters can be an inconvenience, but in most cases people become used to them. As most of the time floaters are harmless, treatment is not advised. However, if you notice a sudden increase in floaters - either a couple of large ones, or a high amount of smaller ones - you should seek urgent attention as they may be the sign of retinal detachment (when the retina pulls away from the back of your eye it can lead to a sudden increase in floaters or a blank spot or shadow in your vision which stays there). If you notice these symptoms you should contact your optometrist immediately.


What are Flashes and what to do if I have them?

Flashes in front of the eyes may look like small sparkles or lightning, and tend to appear in the extreme corners of vision. These occur when there is a pull on the retina as the vitreous gel inside the eye becomes more liquid and collapses, or they can also appear when somebody is hit in the eye. They can come and go, while not blocking your vision and they are likely to appear more frequently as you get older.

Although flashes usually indicate a pull on the retina, constant flashes may be a sign of retinal detachment which can also lead to an increase in floaters. If you notice these symptoms or a shadow at the edge of your vision you need to seek attention straight away and contact your optometrist immediately.


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