Photopsias (Eye Flashes)

A photopsia is a visual disturbance, a flash of light that happens without a light source. You may see sparkles or shapes like lightning bolts. It can be nothing, or it can be a symptom of another condition.

Overview

What are photopsias (eye flashes)?

Flashes of light you see even when you’re not looking at light have a medical name — photopsias. They’re kind of like eye floaters, which have a medical name, too — myodesopsias.

You can experience floaters and flashes together or on their own. Both floaters and flashes happen when the vitreous or vitreous humor pulls on the retina, creating tension. You can also see flashes in one eye or both eyes.

These flashes are visual disturbances that occur because of something happening in your eyes or your brain. Phosphenes is the medical name for flashes of light that don’t happen because of actual light sources.

For many people, flashes will happen more often early in the morning than later in the day. They might also happen when you’re in a dark room or outside in the dark. You might wake up seeing flashes of bright light that then fade as the day continues. Sometimes, flashes can occur with head, eye or body movement, especially in a dark room.

What do photopsias (eye flashes) look like?

The flashes of light you may see in your eyes are most likely to be white or sparkly, but colored lights happen, too. The flashes can take many shapes, including:

  • Zigzag lines.
  • Streaks of lightning.
  • Brief pops like flashbulbs going off.
  • Sparks or flickering lights.
  • Flashes that spin in circles.
  • Spots or thick lines.
  • White snow or fuzz.
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Possible Causes

What are the most common causes of photopsias (eye flashes)?

Occasional eye flashes are common and can be part of the natural aging process. However, they can also be a sign of other conditions, including:

Care and Treatment

How are photopsias (eye flashes) treated?

Your provider will treat a photopsia by treating its cause. Some causes, like retinal detachments, brain injuries or eye injuries, are medical emergencies. With retinal detachment, you might notice darkened side vision along with eye flashes and floaters. Get help right away if you’ve had a brain or eye injury or think you might have retinal detachment.

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What questions will my eye care provider ask me about photopsias (eye flashes) during an appointment?

During an appointment to diagnose eye flashes, your eye care provider will want to get as many details as possible about 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 your provider may ask include:

  • When did you first notice eye flashes?
  • What do your flashes look like, and how many do you usually see at a time?
  • How often do you experience eye flashes?
  • Have you had any eye surgeries in the past?
  • Have you ever had an eye injury?
  • Does it seem like you’ve had a curtain go down over all or part of your eye?
  • Do you see any shadows on the side, top or bottom of your vision (your peripheral vision)?
  • Do you have an autoimmune disease, diabetes or another medical condition?

Sometimes it can help to start a journal when you first experience a medical 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 an appointment.

What can I do at home to treat photopsias?

You probably don’t need to treat photopsias that are unrelated to a more serious condition. But this is a decision you need to make with your eye care provider after an eye examination and discussion of your symptoms.

Can eye flashes (photopsias) be prevented?

You probably can’t prevent photopsias from happening. However, you can help by caring for your overall health and your eye health. Some tips include:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Maintain a weight that’s healthy for you.
  • Eat nutritious foods like those on the Mediterranean diet.
  • Wear eye protection, including sunglasses or protective goggles.
  • See your eye care provider on a regular basis.
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When to Call the Doctor

When should a healthcare provider treat photopsias (eye flashes)?

If you have any sudden loss of vision or extreme pain in your eye, you should call your eye care provider or get emergency medical help. This is true with or without eye flashes.

Contact your eye care provider about any change in vision, including an increased number of eye flashes, especially if you have additional signs or symptoms of illness.

Additional Common Questions

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

Having visual disturbances like photopsias can sometimes be alarming. Floaters and flashes 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.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Photopsia is a medical term for a visual disturbance that happens when you see light without looking at a light. While other medical conditions aren’t always the cause of flashes, it’s best to err on the side of caution and contact an eye care provider. They’ll be able to diagnose any issues and advise you on treatment.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/13/2023.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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