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Flashes and Floaters

Floaters are small, fluid particles that have detached from the gel-like vitreous fluid found within the interior of the eye. The vitreous fluid inflates the posterior portion of the eye and helps the eye to maintain its shape and composition. As we age, the vitreous fluid begins to dissolve into a more aqueous (watery) form. Once a large enough area of the vitreous fluid has dissolved, the fluid pulls free in a globular form from its attachment to the retina. This sudden and often dramatic event - called a posterior vitreous separation/detachment. Posterior vitreous separation tends to occur in people who are in their late 50's or early 60's.

What Are the Symptoms of Flashes and Floaters?

  • Moving spots and stringy debris that move past or remain in your field of vision (known as "floaters")
  • Flashing Lights in your peripheral vision

What are Flashes and Floaters?

Floaters are tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous (the clear, jelly-like fluid that fills the inside of the eye). When people reach middle-age, the vitreous fluid inside the eye thickens or shrinks and clumps and strands of the vitreous begin to form. Floaters occur when these clumps and strands of vitreous gel separate from the back of the eye. This process is known as posterior vitreous separation. Once the pieces of vitreous have separated from the retina, they are free to float and move inside the eye. When you see a floater, though it appears to be in front of your eye, you are actually seeing the shadows of the floaters that have been cast onto the retina inside the eye. Patients often describe floaters as a cobweb or veil over their eye. The appearance of floaters can often be alarming to people, especially when the onset is sudden. If new floaters appear suddenly or current floaters increase in size or amount, contact your ophthalmologist immediately.

Flashing lights in the periphery, or side vision, is another common symptom of a posterior vitreous separation. As the vitreous gel pulls loose from the back of the eye, it tugs on the retina (the paper-thin lining of the back of the eye). The retina is covered with photoreceptor cells that sense light as it comes into the eye and transmits electrical impulses to the brain where these impulses are transformed into visual information. When the retina is tugged on, the photoreceptors on the retina generate the sensation of flashing lights in the periphery of your vision.

In some cases, the retina can actually tear or detach when the shrinking vitreous pulls away from the eye. This is a serious complication and can lead to vision loss. If you have the sudden onset of new floaters in your vision and/or flashing lights in the periphery of your vision, call your eye doctor immediately to arrange a prompt examination. During this examination, your pupils will be dilated to examine your retina to make sure there is no retinal detachment. While they are uncommon, retinal detachments can cause vision loss, and repairing them quickly is the best way to save your vision. See RETINAL DETACHMENT AND TEARS.

How Are Flashes and Floaters Treated?

Although flashes and floaters can be worrisome and a source or irritation, they are often not vision threatening and do not require treatment. Floaters will often diminish and become less bothersome over time. Once your ophthalmologist has determined that there is no retinal tear or detachment, he or she will usually ask you to return in several months to monitor your floaters.

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