What are eye floaters?

There are times when you’re looking at the sky or a blank wall and notice little shapes floating in front of you. They’re not quite clear — almost like little bits of dust stuck on a camera lens. You try to blink them away, but they’re still there. When you look somewhere else, these shapes move with you.

When this happens, you are experiencing eye floaters. Eye floaters are solidified parts of a gel-like substance within the middle of your eye called your vitreous or vitreous humor. As you age, the vitreous starts to shrink within your eye, creating these small particles. Floaters slowly drift through the vitreous. As they move, they pass in front of your macula (the center of the retina), which allows you to see them.

Floaters are very common and, for many people, are a part of the natural aging process. In most cases, you don’t need to treat floaters. They can be annoying at first, but over time you won’t notice they’re there anymore. Sometimes this is mistaken with them going away completely. Floaters can get less pronounced, but they are permanent and stay in eye.

Sometimes, they can be a sign of a more serious eye condition called retinal detachment. In this condition, the shrinking and pulling away of the vitreous (called posterior vitreous detachment) causes the retina to detach. This can cause serious vision problems. Retinal tears are another condition that can be caused by the shrinking of the vitreous. It’s important to remember that as the vitreous shrinks over time, it can create floaters. If you suddenly have more floaters than normal or are experiencing flashes (bursts of light across your field of vision), you should reach out to your eye care provider right away.

What do eye floaters look like?

There are many ways to describe eye floaters. Some people see spiders, medusas, amoebas or clouds. The way you think a floater looks is guided somewhat by your own creativity. If you have floaters, you might see:

  • Squiggly lines.
  • Spots.
  • Spider-like shapes.
  • Thread-like strands.
  • Small shadowy shapes.
  • Black or very dark spots.

There’s no one way you might see floaters and your description of floaters might sound completely different than another person.

What parts of the eye are affected by eye floaters?

When you have eye floaters, they can often appear to be in front of your eye or right on the surface. You may rub your eyes or remove your contact lenses to try to get rid of the dust-like particles. However, eye floaters are located inside your eye. Think of your eye as a ball. To get its round shape, your eye is filled with a gel-like fluid called vitreous. The vitreous is in the middle of the eye with the other structures that allow you to see the world located around it.

Moving from the front of your eye to the back, you have several layers, including:

  • The cornea.
  • The pupil.
  • The iris.
  • The lens.
  • The retina.
  • The optic nerve.

When talking about floaters and their impact on the eye, it’s important to know about the retina. Located at the back of your eye, the retina changes the light that comes into your eye into electrical signals. These signals go to the brain where they become images. When you have floaters in the vitreous, they’re hovering in front of the retina. This casts shadows and shapes on the retina, which you then see as a part of the thing you are looking at.

Are eye floaters normal?

Eye floaters are often a normal and common part of the aging process. As you get older, the fluid within your eyes (vitreous) shrinks. This is normal and doesn’t mean that your eyes are no longer healthy. It is important to maintain regular eye exams over time, especially if you are experiencing floaters. They usually aren’t something you need to be concerned about, but it’s a good idea to have your eyes regularly checked to make sure there aren’t any other serious eye issues.

Can eye floaters happen in only one eye or both eyes at the same time?

Your eyes may not age exactly the same or do everything at the exact same time. The vitreous might shrink in one eye a little faster than in the other. Often, eye floaters are found in one eye at a time. It can happen to both of your eyes, but this usually doesn’t happen at the same time.

What causes eye floaters?

There are several reasons that you might develop eye floaters, but the main one is age. As you get older, the gel-like fluid inside your eye (vitreous) starts to shrink. When the vitreous shrinks, it creates small particles that float down through the fluid. These are your floaters. They eventually settle towards the bottom of your eye where you won’t notice them anymore. This is usually the cause of eye floaters in most people.

There are several other, less common, causes of eye floaters. These include:

  • Having blood in your eye.
  • Experiencing inflammation in your eye.

If you have blood in your eye, it’s often linked to diabetes. A condition called diabetic retinopathy can cause blood from the retina to get into the vitreous. You might see this as dark spots or streaks in your vision. If you have diabetes, you should have regular eye exams to check your vision.

You can also experience inflammation inside your eye. Sometimes your eye can become inflamed (swollen), causing you to experience floaters. This inflammation is called uveitis.

Are eye floaters hereditary?

Eye floaters can happen to anyone as they age. However, other vision issues — like retinal tears or detachment — could be hereditary. If you have a family history of retinal detachment or tears, you might be at a higher risk of developing one in the future. Eye floaters and flashes are potential signs of retinal detachment or retinal tears.

Other risk factors that can be passed down through your family relate to your sight — specifically nearsightedness. If you’re nearsighted, you could be at a higher risk of developing floaters. This could eventually lead to retinal detachment.

However, many people have no family history of retinal detachment or retinal tears when they experience eye floaters. It’s important to remember that eye floaters often happen naturally over time and are a part of the aging process.

Who’s most likely to develop eye floaters?

In most cases, eye floaters develop as you age. They can happen to anyone, but you are at a higher risk of eye floaters if you:

  • Are older (typically over age 50).
  • Are nearsighted (have trouble seeing things that are far away).
  • Have diabetes.
  • Have had eye issues in the past like swelling within your eye.
  • Have had a surgery to correct cataracts.

What age do eye floaters usually start to appear?

For most people, eye floaters start to show up in their vision between the ages of 50 and 70. However, you can see the occasional floater any time before then. Those are much less common. You may want to check in with your eye doctor about persistent floaters you see at a younger age because it could be a sign of a more serious eye condition.

How are eye floaters diagnosed?

Your eye care provider will usually diagnose eye floaters during an eye exam. Your eyes will be dilated so that your provider can get a clear look at the inside of your eye. This allows the provider to see floaters you have and check on your retina. Making sure your retina is not damaged and there’s no sign of a retinal detachment or tear, is an important part of your eye exam.

You may need to have regular eye exams if your provider finds floaters. This is a precaution and allows your provider to keep track of how your vitreous is shrinking over time. Going to these regular eye exams can help prevent a more serious eye problem from happening down the road.

What questions will my doctor ask me about eye floaters and flashes during an appointment?

During an appointment to diagnosis eye floaters, your eye care provider will want to get as many details as possible about your vision and what you’ve been seeing. This is part of the diagnosis process and helps your provider figure out what’s going on with your vision. The more detail you can provide, the better. Some questions you provider may ask you can include:

  • When did you first notice the eye floaters?
  • What do your eye floaters look like and how many do you usually see at a time?
  • How often do you experience eye floaters?
  • Have you ever seen flashes in your vision?
  • Have you had any eye surgeries in the past?
  • Have you ever had an eye injury?
  • Are any parts of your vision covered (think of a curtain in front of your eyes)?
  • Do you see any shadows on the side of your vision (peripheral)?
  • Do you have any autoimmune diseases?
  • Are you diabetic?

Sometimes it can help to start a journal when you first experience a vision problem. Write down everything you saw and details like how long it lasted. This can be a helpful tool when you go into your provider’s office for your appointment.

How do you treat eye floaters?

The most common treatment for eye floaters is not to treat them at all. Even though they can be annoying and bothersome, eye floaters are usually harmless. They usually drift out of your line of sight and you stop noticing them over time. This can be frustrating for people who notice the eye floaters dancing across their view often, but it’s the safest option in most cases.

Eye Floater Surgery

There is a surgical option for removing floaters, but it involves a lot of risk to your vision. In cases where there are a lot of floaters and they’re starting to impact the way you see, a procedure called a vitrectomy can be used to remove them. This surgical procedure involves using incisions to remove the gel-like vitreous from inside your eye. The vitreous is then replaced with a solution that mimics the vitreous. There are several risks involved in this procedure, including:

  • Developing retinal detachment.
  • Developing retinal tears.
  • Not getting all of the floaters out of your eye.
  • Developing cataracts.

Damage to your sight is a risk of this surgery. For this reason, many providers will carefully discuss all pros and cons of this elective procedure before deciding on this treatment path.

Sometimes your provider may also use a laser to treat floaters. This can break up groupings of floaters, helping move them out of your field of vision. This procedure also has possible side effects.

There are no home remedies to make eye floaters go away. Unfortunately, they are often a natural part of aging. Even though they will fade and not be noticeable anymore over time, they never truly go away.

Will eye floaters go away over time?

For many people, eye floaters do not necessarily go away over time, but they do become less noticeable. They slowly sink within your vitreous and eventually settle at the bottom of your eye. Once this happens, you won’t notice them and will think they have gone away. Your brain will also start to ignore them over time, helping you to not notice that they’re still there on the edges of your vision.

The floaters will stay in your eye, settled towards the bottom. They don’t go away, but they usually don’t cause issues for most people over the long-haul.

Can eye floaters and flashes be confused with other medical symptoms?

When you are seeing unusual things in your field of vision, it can sometimes be alarming. Floaters are typically harmless, but they can easily be confused with other vision changes like large spots in your vision. These symptoms can be signs of other medical conditions like:

It’s always a good idea to reach out to your healthcare provider if you have sudden changes to your vision. This could be especially important if you have a medical history of a condition like diabetes or high blood pressure.

Are eye floaters an emergency?

Eye floaters are usually not an emergency. If you see the occasional eye floater, it typically isn’t something to worry about. You should let your eye care provider know about the floaters and have your eyes checked regularly to make sure there are no other vision issues, but this isn’t an emergency.

However, if you suddenly have more floaters than normal, reach out to your healthcare provider right away. This could be a sign of a retinal tear or detachment and it will need to be treated quickly.

Can you have eye floaters and flashes at the same time?

You can experience floaters and flashes together or on their own. Both floaters and flashes happen when the vitreous pulls on the retina, creating tension.

What are eye flashes?

Flashes are bright spots or points of light in your field of vision. You can develop flashes for a few reasons, but one of the most common is when the gel-like vitreous in your eye shrinks and begins to pull on your retina. This is called posterior vitreous detachment. You’re more likely to see flashes as you age and the vitreous of your eye naturally shrinks.

For many people, flashes will happen more often first thing in the morning or when you’re in a dark room. You might wake up seeing flashes of bright light that then fade as the day continues.

Who’s most likely to develop eye flashes?

Eye flashes are most often see in:

What do eye flashes look like?

Flashes can be described in several ways, including seeing:

  • A bright spot or streak of light.
  • A jagged light that looks like lightening.
  • Bursts of light that look like fireworks or camera flashes.

Some people also compare flashes in your vision to when you hit the back of your head and see bright lights for a few moments.

Are eye flashes a symptom of a more serious eye problem?

Eye flashes can be a symptom of retinal detachment or retinal tears. These are serious conditions that can damage your sight. A retinal tear is a break in the retina. A retinal detachment happens when the vitreous pulls away from the retina, creates a break allowing the fluid from the vitreous can get behind the retina and cause damage to your vision.

Seeing a flash of light can be one symptom of a migraine. When you have a migraine, your vision can be affected. You might see a flash that looks like a jagged bolt of lightening or a zigzag line. This might look different than a flash you would experience if you have posterior vitreous detachment. Another difference is the age you might experience the flashes. Flashes that are linked to migraines typically happen in younger people, while seeing flashes when your vitreous is shrinking usually happens at an older age. With an ocular migraine you might or might not get a headache.

How are eye flashes treated?

Flashes are usually treated by taking care of the condition that’s causing them. If you’re experiencing flashes related to migraines, treating your migraines can help relieve the flashes. This can also be the case if you are experiencing retinal detachment or a retinal tear. You’ll need to have the condition treated to help relieve the flashes. This is also a serious eye condition that you will need to see your provider about quickly. Remember to reach out to your provider right away if you experience new or more flashes than normal.

When should I worry about eye floaters or flashes in my vision?

In most cases, the occasional eye floater or flash in your vision isn’t something you need to worry about. This often happens as you age and it’s very normal. However, if you start to notice a lot more floaters than you’ve experienced in the past or many flashes, you should call your doctor. This could be a sign of a serious vision problem like a detached retina. If you have a detached or torn retina, you’ll need treatment.

It’s important to take care of your eyes, especially as you age. If you notice anything unusual happening with your vision, it’s often a good idea to call your healthcare provider. Having your eyes checked regularly and voicing any concerns is a good way to keep your eyes healthy over time.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/20/2020.

References

  • American Academy of Ophthalmology. Floaters and Flashes. (https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-are-floaters-flashes) Accessed 8/21/2020.
  • National Eye Institute. Floaters. (https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/eye-conditions-and-diseases/floaters#section-id-969) Accessed 8/21/2020.
  • Bright Focus Foundation. What Causes Eye Floaters? (https://www.brightfocus.org/macular/article/what-causes-eye-floaters) Accessed 8/21/2020.
  • National Health System. Floaters and flashes in the eyes. (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/floaters-and-flashes-in-the-eyes/) Accessed 8/21/2020.
  • Merck Manual Professional Version. Floaters. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/eye-disorders/symptoms-of-ophthalmologic-disorders/floaters) Accessed 8/21/2020.

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