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Eye Care Glossary


What are floaters?

The small spots you may see occasionally in your field of vision are called muscae volitantes, commonly known as floaters. A clear, gel-like fluid, called the vitreous body, fills the inside cavity of the eye. If some of this gel clumps, floaters can result. Floaters also can occur from small flecks of protein or other material that were trapped in the vitreous during the eye's formation.

Even though they may seem to be in front of the eye, floaters actually are seen as shadows by your retina, which is the light-sensitive, inner layer of the eye. These spots appear in various forms, such as dots, threads or cobwebs. Furthermore, since they are within the eye, floaters move as the eyes move; they may dart away when you try to look at them.

What causes floaters?

Over time, the vitreous gel shrinks and detaches from the retina; the pulling can cause small amounts of bleeding. This is a common cause of floaters in people who are nearsighted or who have had a cataract operation. Less frequently, floaters may result from eye disease, eye injury, or crystal-like deposits that form in the vitreous.

What causes flashes of light?

Flashes of light can be caused by the shrinking vitreous pulling on the retina. These jagged lines may appear intermittently for several weeks after the vitreous/retinal separation, although they usually are not cause for alarm.

However, these light flashes may be associated with many new floaters or a partial loss of the field of vision. If this occurs, have your eyes examined by your eye doctor to determine if a retinal tear or detachment has occurred.

If flashes of light are present in both eyes and last between 10 and 20 minutes, this may indicate a migraine, caused by a spasm of the brain's blood vessels. This may be followed by a migraine headache, but it also is possible to have flashes of light or blind spots without the headache (sometimes called an ophthalmic migraine).

Can anything be done about floaters?

Most people sometimes see "spots" although they can become more noticeable with age. While there is no treatment for floaters, there are ways of coping with them. If a floater appears in your line of vision, move your eye around; this causes the fluid inside the eye to shift and allows the floater to move out of the way. Since we usually move our eyes from side to side, looking up and down may be more effective in removing floaters from your line of sight.

Should I be concerned about floaters?

A few floaters generally do not indicate serious eye problems. However, if a large number suddenly appear, or they seem to worsen over time, it is wise to get an eye examination. If the floaters appear simultaneously with flashes of light or a curtain or veil over some of the vision, they might be a sign of serious conditions such as retinal weakness or tears, hemorrhaging due to diabetes, or high blood pressure. Retinal tears and hemorrhaging demand immediate attention!

As a rule of thumb, you should immediately notify your eye doctor if you experience a loss of vision. Regular eye examinations will help determine if you should be concerned about the floaters and your inner eye health.

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