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What are Flashes and floaters?

You may sometimes see small specks or clouds moving in your field of vision; they are called floaters. You can often see them when looking at a plain background, like a blank wall or blue sky. Floaters are actually tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous, the clear jelly-like fluid that fills the inside of your eye. Although the floaters appear to be in front of the eye, they are actually floating in the vitreous fluid inside the eye. What you see are the shadows they cast on the retina, the nerve layer at the back of the eye that senses light and allows you to see. Floaters can have different shapes: little dots, circles, lines, clouds or cobwebs.

What causes floaters?

Floaters occur when the vitreous, a gel-like substance that fills about 80 percent of the eye and helps it maintain a round shape, slowly starts to shrink.

As the vitreous shrinks, it becomes somewhat stringy, and the strands can cast tiny shadows on the retina. These are floaters. In most cases, floaters are part of the natural aging process and simply an annoyance. They can be distracting at first, but eventually tend to "settle" at the bottom of the eye, becoming less bothersome. They usually settle below the line of sight and do not go away completely.

Other causes of floaters (more serious)

  • infection
  • inflammation (uveitis)
  • hemorrhaging
  • retinal tears
  • injury to the eye

Symptoms of Flashes and Floaters

  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Specks floating in the central vision

In many cases flashes and floaters are caused by age-related changes in the back of the eye. The age related changes are specifically related to changes in the vitreous fluid (gel material). The vitreous fluid gradually becomes more viscous or watery overtime. What happens after the age of 30 or so is that the vitreous might be watery enough to swallow clumps of material and this is where the floaters can develop. These clumps of material floating inside the eye can cast shadows on the retina and can explain why people see floating spots.

Aside from maintaining good nutrition, taking anti-oxidant vitamins, and following a healthy lifestyle, Ophthalmologists have no specific answer on how to prevent them. Laser treatment has helped many people who are affected by flashes and floaters. It is a reasonable alternative to vitrectomy, an operation that is available if laser can't help.

Retina Detachment

retinaThe middle of our eye is filled with a clear gel called vitreous (vi-tree-us) that is attached to the retina. Sometimes tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous will cast shadows on the retina, and you may sometimes see small dots, specks, strings or clouds moving in your field of vision. These are called floaters. You can often see them when looking at a plain, light background, like a blank wall or blue sky.

As we get older, the vitreous may shrink and pull on the retina. When this happens, you may notice what look like flashing lights, lightning streaks or the sensation of seeing “stars.” These are called flashes.

Usually, the vitreous moves away from the retina without causing problems, but sometimes the vitreous pulls hard enough to tear the retina in one or more places. Fluid may pass through a retinal tear, lifting the retina off the back of the eye — much as wallpaper can peel off a wall. When the retina is pulled away from the back of the eye like this, it is called a retinal detachment.

The retina does not work when it is detached and vision becomes blurry. A retinal detachment is a very serious problem that almost always causes blindness unless it is treated with retina detachment surgery.

Learn more about Retinal Detachment