Floaters and Flashes

Floaters

Floaters appear as small dots, specks, wavy lines or “flies” that may be seen to be moving around in the visual field. They are called floaters because they are seen to move around as the eye moves. Although they tend to occur beyond the age of 30, they may appear at anytime in one’s life. It is more common among people who are short-sighted.

Cause of Floaters

The inner cavity of the eye is filled with a jelly-like fluid, called the vitreous. The vitreous gel undergoes natural degeneration with age and this results in it shrinking and condensing and becoming more liquefied. The condensation may form tiny clumps of gel, vitreous strands or cellular debris within the eye. Vitreous shrinkage or condensation results in posterior vitreous detachment, which is a common cause of floaters. Floaters may also occur when there is internal eye inflammation.

Symptoms

The person sees these floaters as small dots, specks, wavy lines, “flies” or circles. In the early stage, it may appear in a fixed location in the central visual field and can be rather annoying. As the vitreous continues to degenerate, the floaters move more freely and the person notices it less frequently.

Flashes of light

When the vitreous gel shrinks and collapses, it may pull on the retina and give rise to the appearances of flashes of light or lightning streaks. These are often noticed in a darkened environment or when the eyes are closed. Like floaters, these usually occur as part of the natural aging process of the vitreous gel.

Floaters and Flashes as a sign of Retinal Tears or Detachment

Although floaters and flashes are usually not serious, as the vitreous gel degenerates and shrinks it may pull on the retina and result in a tear of the retina, which in turn may lead to a retinal detachment.

Early symptoms of retinal tears or detachment include a sudden increase in floaters, persistent flashes of light, or persistent blurring and shadowing of part of the visual field. When this happens, the person should seek an eye consultation as soon as possible for a thorough eye examination to exclude the presence of a retinal tear or detachment.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for floaters or flashes. They usually decrease on their own over time. Simple measures like moving your eyes from side to side or up and down can help to stir the vitreous fluid and move the floaters away from the line of sight.

The main concern is the possibility of developing retinal tears or detachment. As such, a recent onset of these symptoms or if there is a sudden increase in the number of floaters, flashes or persistent blurring in part of the visual field, the person should promptly see an eye specialist.