Floaters and Flashes

What are floaters?

Floaters that appear as small black spots, strands of cobweb or pieces of hair are the result of the jelly within your eye becoming more liquid in places and strands/aggregates of collagen/cells floating within it. Floaters are very common and are normally harmless. 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.

 

Seek urgent advice if you have:

  • A sudden increase in floaters, especially if you also notice flashing lights.
  • A new, large floater.
  • A change in floaters or flashing lights after having a direct blow to the eye.
  • A shadow which is spreading across the vision of one of your eyes.

 

Why do floaters appear?

While some people are born with floaters, in other cases they may occur as one gets older and the gel in the eye naturally shrinks. The gel then disintegrates into a watery fluid and wavy collagen fibrils which appear as line-shaped floaters. Occasionally the gel shrinks enough to exfoliate from the retina, in which case people see a large floater in the shape of a ring.

 

What do I do if I have floaters?

As most of the time floaters are harmless, treatment is not advised. If you notice a sudden increase in floaters - either a couple of large ones, or a high amount of smaller ones - you should seek urgent attention as they may be the sign of retinal detachment (when the retina pulls away from the back of your eye it can lead to a sudden increase in floaters or a blank spot or shadow in your vision which stays there). If you notice these symptoms you should contact your optometrist immediately.

 

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

Flashes in front of the eyes may look like small sparkles or lightning, and tend to appear in the extreme 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. They can come and go, while not blocking your vision and they are likely to appear more frequently as you get older.

Constant flashes may be a sign of retinal detachment which can also lead to an increase in floaters. If you notice these symptoms or a shadow at the edge of your vision you need to seek attention straight away and contact your optometrist immediately.

Occasionally some people 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 floaters can also be a sign of retinal detachment, which needs urgent medical attention.