Floaters and Flashes

What are floaters?

Floaters are inside your eyes and they might look like small black spots, strands of cobweb or pieces of hair and they can appear as semi-transparent or dark. Many people have floaters and they are normally harmless. They are commonly associated with short sightedness or advanced aging. They appear when the jelly within your eye (vitreous gel) becomes more liquid in places and strands/aggregates of collagen/cells begin floating within it.

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. You can never look directly at them as they float in the jelly of the eye and they move away as the eye moves. If there is only a small amount of floaters in your eye, they may only be visible when you look at a light coloured surface or at the sky in daylight.

Some people may 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 the amount of floaters can also be a sign of retinal detachment, which needs immediate 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.


Make an appointment with an optometrist straight away if you have:

  • A sudden increase in floaters, particularly if you also notice flashing lights.
  • One or two new, larger floaters.
  • A change in floaters or flashing lights after having a direct blow to the eye.
  • A spreading shadow across the vision of one of your eyes.


Why do people have floaters?

Some people are born with floaters, and in other cases they may occur as you get older and the gel in your eye, called vitreous humour, naturally starts to shrink. Then the gel comes apart into a watery fluid and wavy collagen fibrils which appear as line-shaped floaters. Sometimes the gel shrinks enough to peel from the retina, in which case people see a large floater in the shape of a ring.


What happens if I have floaters?

In most cases people become used to floaters, but for some people they can be an inconvenience.  Floaters are usually harmless, thus treatment is rarely advised. However, if you notice a sudden increase in floaters - either a couple of large ones, or a shower of smaller ones - you should seek urgent attention as they may be the sign of retinal detachment. If you notice these symptoms you should contact your optometrist immediately.


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

Flashes may look like small sparkles or lightning, and these tend to appear in the utmost 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, and may not block your vision. They are likely to appear more frequently as you get older.

Even though 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 the amount of floaters. If you notice these symptoms or a shadow at the edge of your vision you need to contact your optometrist immediately.


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