Book Your Free Consultation
Mr David Allamby
MD, FRCOphth, FRCS
Most of us have seen strange shapes floating in our vision from time to time and those tiny spots, specks and flecks that drift aimlessly around our field of vision are otherwise known as floaters.
Floaters in the eye are caused by a small pieces of debris that float in the vitreous humour of the eye. The vitreous humour is a clear, jelly-like substance that helps maintain the eye’s shape. Debris within the vitreous humour casts a shadow on the retina at the back of the eye, and appears to ‘float’ in your field of vision. So while these eye floaters look like they are in front of your eye, they are actually floating inside it.
loaters in eyes can appear in a variety of shapes and sizes such as:
As you age, the protein fibers that make up the vitreous shrink down to little shreds that clump together, and this causes the floaters on your retina. These changes can happen at any age, but usually occur between 50 and 75. They are also more visible if you gaze at a clear or overcast sky or a computer screen with a white or light-colored background. These specks never seem to stay still when you try to focus on them. Floaters and spots move when your eye and the vitreous gel inside the eye moves, creating the impression that they are “floating.”
Ordinarily, they are very common and usually aren’t cause for concern. In fact, according to Harvard health, about one quarter of people have some vitreous shrinkage with floaters by their 60s, and two-thirds of people develop them by the time they are 80 years old.
Other causes of floaters include:
While floaters are generally nothing to worry about, there are some instances in which they can be cause for concern. Call your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms:
These could be signs of a more severe condition. Some of these conditions include:
A vitreous detachment or tear can occur when the vitreous humour shrinks and pulls away from the retina. When this happens, you may see a shower of floaters or even flashes of light. If you experience these symptoms, you should see an eye doctor immediately, as they could be signs of a torn retina.
A vitreous haemorrhage occurs when blood vessels in the eye leak into the vitreous humour. This can result from diabetes, eye injury, or vitreous detachment. A vitreous haemorrhage can cause a sudden increase in floaters and make it difficult to see. If you experience these symptoms, you should see an eye doctor right away.
A retinal detachment occurs when the retina pulls away from the back of the eye. This can happen as a result of vitreous detachment or vitreous haemorrhage. Retinal detachment is a serious condition that can lead to blindness. If you experience a sudden increase in floaters, flashes of light, or blurry vision, you should see an eye doctor immediately, as these could be signs of a retinal detachment.
In most cases, floaters do not cause major problems and do not require treatment. After a while, your brain learns to ignore them and you may not even notice them. If a floater appears in your direct line of vision, moving your eye up and down may help. This causes the vitreous humour in your eye to move around, which can shift the floater elsewhere.
Floaters can also be a symptom of retinal tears. By the time half of people reach 50, the vitreous humour has separated from the retina. Generally, this is normal – but sometimes it can pull on the retina, causing blood vessels within it to burst. This is what is called a retinal tear. Floaters are not always a sign of a retinal tear, but if you suspect you may have one you need to make an appointment with an eye doctor. Having a retinal tear puts you at risk of retinal detachment, which is when the retina detaches from the rest of your eye and this can cause blindness. However, this is extremely rare – Only one in every 10,000 people will develop it in any given year in the UK.
You should always mention any vision changes or eye problems, whether floaters or something else, to your optician during your regular examinations. Floaters are occasionally only visible during eye examinations, especially if they are close to your retina.
A comprehensive dilated eye exam can help your doctor determine if vitreous humour has shrunk enough to pull away from the retina and if a retinal tear has occurred. This type of exam is essential for people who are over 50 or have a family history of retinal detachment.
If you have a retinal tear, a few different treatment options can help prevent it from progressing to a retinal detachment. Your doctor will discuss these options with you and help you choose the best one for your case.