All About Floaters
Are you worried about those wispy cobwebs and strings that drift through your vision? These drifting shapes are called floaters, and are usually related to normal age-related changes deep inside your eye.
How Floaters Form
Floaters form due to changes in the vitreous humor, the clear, gel-like substance that helps the eye maintain its round shape. The vitreous humor fills the space between the light-sensing retina at the back of the eye and the clear lens located behind your iris and pupil.
Fibers inside the gel clump together as the vitreous humor shrinks with age. These fibers create shadows that seem to float in front off your eyes as they drift throughout the vitreous humor. Floaters are most obvious when you're looking toward the sky or a light.
Floaters take on a variety of shapes, in addition to cobwebs and strings. They may also look like lines, dots, rings, dark specks, or circles. It's only natural to feel a little worried the first time you see a floater. Although floaters can be a little annoying, they don't cause any serious vision problems in most cases.
Have you noticed flashes of light in addition to floaters? If the vitreous humor bumps against the retina or pulls on it, you may see quick bursts of light. You may also notice flashes when a small section of the vitreous humor detaches from the back of the eye. Although small detachments aren't a problem, retinal detachment or retinal tears can occur if a larger section of the vitreous humor detaches.
A few floaters or occasional flashes are common and perfectly normal. More than 75% of smartphone users reported seeing floaters, according to survey results published in the International Journal of Ophthalmology.
Floater Risk Factors
Several factors increase your risk of developing floaters, including:
- Age. Most people notice floaters in their 40s or 50s, but can form earlier in life as well.
- Being Nearsighted. Nearsightedness is caused by an elongated eye shape. This oblate shape of the eye may put pressure on the vitreous humor, which can lead to floaters.
- Diabetes. People who have diabetes and develop diabetic retinopathy are more likely to develop floaters. Diabetic retinopathy causes vision changes when blood vessels inside the retina leak.
- Other Factors. Your floater risk may be higher if you had cataract surgery complications, injured your eye, or the inside of your eye became infected or inflamed.
When to Worry About Your Floaters
Although floaters are usually harmless, they can be a sign of a retinal detachment or tear, serious eye conditions that can cause permanent loss of vision. Retinal detachment happens when the retina peels away from the back of the eye, while tears happen when the vitreous pulls on the retina, creating a rip in the retina. Both detachments and tears interrupt the flow of information from the eye to the brain, causing vision loss.
Retinal detachments may be partial or complete. If your retina detaches or tears, you may notice a sudden increase in floaters and flashes, loss of peripheral (side) vision), or a dark area in your vision.
If you experience any of these symptoms, call your eye doctor or go to the emergency room immediately. The sooner the retinal detachment is treated, the more likely your vision will be restored.
Floaters don't need to be treated unless they interfere with your vision. If this happens, your eye doctor may recommend laser treatment to break up floaters, or a procedure called a vitrectomy. During a vitrectomy, the vitreous humor is removed and replaced with a gas bubble or saline solution.
Don't wait to call the eye doctor if you notice any changes in your vision, including floaters and flashes. Contact our office to schedule your appointment.
NCBI: International Journal of Ophthalmology: Prevalence of Vitreous Floaters in a Community Sample of Smartphone Users, 6/18/2013
National Eye Institute: Floaters, 9/22/2020
American Academy of Ophthalmology: What Are Floaters and Flashes, 11/29/2022
American Optometric Association: Floaters & Spots
All About Vision: What Causes Eye Floaters and How to Treat Them, 3/4/2019