Floaters are translucent or dark specks that seem to float about in your field of vision. Some floaters are normal, and most people have them, but they don’t usually notice them unless they become numerous or more prominent. Floaters can look like cobwebs or squiggly lines or floating bugs. They become more apparent when you look at something plain and bright, such as white paper or a blue sky. They are also more evident when they are stirred up, such as when you move your eyes. Floaters are more common and seem to be more annoying to people who are nearsighted of who have had a cataract operation.
WHAT ARE THESE FLOATING SPECKS? Much of the interior of the human eyeball is filled with vitreous, a clear, thick substance that helps maintain the eye’s round shape. Light passes through the vitreous (after being focused by the cornea and lens) to reach the retina, where images are formed. Any bits of tissue moving about in the vitreous cast shadows onto the retina, and you see those shadows as things “floating” in your field of vision.
HOW DO FLOATERS GET THERE? Before birth, there is a large blood vessel in the vitreous, but by birth the vessel is no longer required and it disintegrates-but not completely. A few broken-up particles remain for life and float around. These are the floaters that everyone has.
Other occurrences can add more floaters. As we get older, the vitreous shrinks and separates from the retina. As this separation occurs, floaters may appear. In about half of all people, the vitreous has separated from the retina by age 50, although many people are not aware that this process has occurred. Floaters may also come from old or new bleeding within the eye. They may be the result of a disease that causes opaque deposits in the vitreous or of an ocular inflammation that causes cellular debris. High impact, jarring activities and sports, blows to the head and eye injuries can also cause floaters.
ARE FLOATERS A SERIOUS PROBLEM? In most cases floaters are simply an annoyance. An eye examination will usually reveal if there’s something serious that needs medical attention. The sudden appearance of new floaters, sometimes accompanied by apparent flashes of light (“lightning streaks”) in the visual periphery, can be a sign you have had a vitreous detachment, a frequent consequence of aging that is not usually serious.
However, these same symptoms can also be a danger sign that a retinal tear has occurred. Tears in the retina should be repaired right away. A retinal tear can develop into a retinal detachment, which is a serious threat to vision. The only way to find out the reason for these sudden new floaters is by having complete eye examination, followed by another one about six weeks later.
CAN FLOATERS BE REMOVED? Whenever floaters interfere with vision, you can shift them out of your line of sight by moving your eyes around quickly, side-to-side or up-and-down. The only way to permanently get rid of them is by surgical removal, and since they are rarely more than a nuisance, the benefit of surgery would not warrant the risks. Surgery might be considered necessary only if the cells and debris are so dense and numerous that they interfere with useful vision, but this is very rare. Almost everyone learns to ignore them and simply live with them.
Remember, if you are aware of sudden floaters and/or flashing lights make sure to see your eye care professional right away.