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Floaters and Flashes

Blurry spots or specks in your vision that move may be floaters — debris in the eye’s vitreous gel. They don’t block vision and are more easily seen in bright light. Floaters are common and usually harmless. But if they appear or increase suddenly, or are accompanied by light flashes, you should see a doctor. Vision abnormalities that tend to be more serious include persistent white or black spots and a sudden shadow or loss of peripheral vision. These require immediate evaluation.

Floaters are small abnormalities in a person’s vision. They can appear as tiny spots or small curvy lines that move along with the movement of the eye. There are many possible causes of floaters, but usually they are the result of problems in the vitreous. Floaters can occur for a variety of reasons. Foreign matter in the vitreous, physical injury to the eye, and a number of eye diseases can all cause floaters. While floaters do not have major adverse effects on overall vision, it is important that people experiencing these spots monitor them closely as they could be indicative of a more serious condition.

WHAT CAUSES FLOATERS?

In most cases, floaters are part of the natural aging process. As we grow older, the vitreous shrinks causing the development of cloudy clumps of vitreous which are seen as floaters. This is common among those who are nearsighted or who have undergone cataract surgery. While they may interfere with clear vision, floaters usually present no threat to your eye and are more of an annoyance than a visual impediment.

In many people between 60-70 years of age, the shrinking vitreous gel in the eye pulls free of its attachment to the back of the eye at the optic nerve. When this happens, a large floater is usually seen which can resemble a cob web. This is frequently associated with the sensation of flashing lights as a result of the vitreous pulling on the retina. This separation of the vitreous from the back of the eye is called a posterior vitreous detachment. During this separation, tears can develop in the retina which can lead to a retinal detachment. Early detection and treatment of tears can prevent a retinal detachment.

Floaters, particularly large floaters and/or large numbers of floaters, may be symptomatic of a more serious problem– bleeding into the vitreous cavity, a torn retina, inflammation or other problems. If you experience an episode where you see a large number of floaters, or if you develop new floaters, you should be examined by a retina specialist.

WHAT CAUSES LIGHT FLASHES?

Flashes of light lasting a few seconds may appear in your vision when the vitreous gel pulls or tugs on the retina. This may happen as a natural result of aging or it may occur temporarily if you receive a blow to the head or eye. Usually these flashes, which are often described as lightning streaks, are noticed at night.

Light flashes appearing as wavy lines in both eyes and lasting from a few minutes to half-an-hour, are usually a sign of an ocular migraine headache. Migraine-related flashes are often noticed in a lighted environment. Flashes of this nature are not a symptom of eye problems. If you suffer from ocular migraines, contact your family physician for assistance.

The onset of new light flashes of short duration at night, especially when accompanied by the appearance of many new floaters or a blackening out of part of your field of vision, may indicate a retinal tear or detachment. If you experience light flashes in combination with these symptoms, you should contact your eye doctor immediately to arrange for an examination by a retina specialist .

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE ABOUT FLOATERS AND FLASHES?

Usually the appearance of new floaters or light flashes does not indicate any serious eye problem. However, the only way to ensure that the floaters or flashes are not symptomatic of a more serious problem, is to have your retina examined. If, following the exam, you develop large numbers of new floaters that seem to get worse over time, we recommend that you have your eyes re-examined.

When floaters appear in your line of vision, move your eye around — up and down as well as from side to side. This movement creates a swirling in the vitreous fluid and may cause the floater to move out of your field of vision. How often should I have a regular check-up?

To safeguard your vision, individuals over age 40 should undergo a comprehensive eye exam annually. If you are under age 40 and have risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes or a family history of glaucoma or macular degeneration, a yearly exam is also recommended.

Individuals under age 40 who are in good health, with no known risk factors should have their eyes examined every two years.

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