What are floaters?
Floaters retain this name due to the fact that
many people notice dark dots, lines or particles in their vision
that move around as though floating in the eye. Floaters cast shadows
on the retina, the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the
eye. The retina then sends visual signals to the brain, resulting
in an image. Floaters come and go with eye movements, such as blinking.
They follow eye movements, but lag behind and float to a halt a
few seconds after the eyes stop moving. These images are most obviously
appear when looking at a bright, uniform field of vision, such as
a white wall or a clear sky. People may experience one or several
floaters in one eye or both. Floaters are not the same as the spots
you see after looking at intense light such as from a flashbulb.
Who gets floaters?
Most people see floaters some time during their
lives. Many individuals in their teens and 20s notice some floaters,
and people who are nearsighted may have floaters at a younger age.
Floaters become more frequent as a person ages.
What causes floaters?
The type of floaters depends on what causes them. The majority of
floaters are due to normal degenerative changes in the vitreous,
the jelly-like floaters because of a retinal tear without a detachment,
the tear usually can be treated with minor surgical procedures that
can effectively prevent a retinal detachment.
Patients whose floaters are due to bleeding from the abnormal growth
of blood vessels can suffer one or more hemorrhages inside the eye
that may severely affect vision. Furthermore, abnormal blood vessel
growth often leads to scar tissue that tends to shrink.
This shrinkage can cause wrinkling, dragging, distortion, detachment
and/or tearing of the retina. Minor surgical procedures usually
can prevent these problems if diagnosed early. If these problems
become advanced, major eye surgery may be needed to prevent blindness.
However, as with retinal tears, surgery often is unable to completely
reverse the damage caused by scar tissue.
There are no medications available that are effective in treating
most floaters. Patients with floaters due to inflammatory eye diseases
may be helped by medicines to treat the inflammation; however, the
floaters may remain after the treatment. Although floaters can be
bothersome, most people learn to ignore them.
Are flashes of light related to floaters?
Many patients suffer from both floaters and light flashes. Light
flashes refer to the false sensation that light is flashing into
the eye. Light flashes are bright and of very short duration. They
usually are shaped like a line or an arc and may appear to shoot
in a certain direction. Light flashes seem to occur in the side
of the field of vision and can be seen even when the eyes are closed.
Some of the same conditions that cause floaters also cause light
flashes. These include the vitreous tugging on the retina or buildup
of scar tissue in the eye.
What should I do if I have floaters?
Those who have had floaters a long time without much change recently
should have an eye examination when convenient. However, certain
symptoms are cause for immediate concern. Someone who has developed
floaters for the first time or is certain their floaters have become
worse or more numerous may have a new, potentially serious problem.
A person who suddenly notices a large number of floaters, often
like a shower of them, may have bleeding in the eye.
Other people may notice new floaters along with a cloudy area in
the side field of vision in one eye. Often people describe this
as a ‘curtain’ closing on part of their vision. This may indicate
that a retinal detachment is developing from a retinal tear. People
with any of these symptoms should see an ophthalmologist right away.
The evaluation of floaters should include examination of the retina
and vitreous through dilated pupils, usually with gentle pressure
to the eye to bring into view areas that are difficult to see. Early
diagnosis and treatment may prevent serious problems and may improve
the chance for preserving vision.