Flashes and Floaters
What are flashes and floaters?
- Flashes are sparkles or lightning streaks seen in your peripheral vision. They may look like you are “seeing stars”, or as if a flashlight was shone swiftly across your eye.
- Floaters are spots, specks, dots, and lines that float across your field of vision. They are sometimes initially mistaken as a bug flying past you, hair across your eye, or something moving out of the corner of your eye.
What causes flashes and floaters?
- Flashes are caused by the vitreous, the jelly-like substance in the back of the eye, pulling and tugging on the retina. This can occur normally as part of the aging process as the vitreous begins to shrink, or may occur during a retinal tear. Because the symptoms can appear so similar, it is vital that you see an ophthalmologist quickly if you experience any of these signs.
- Clinically, floaters are small bits of vitreous that have become detached and float around inside the eye, causing shadows to be cast on your retina from incoming light and creating ‘floaters.’ The detachment of the vitreous may be caused by aging as the vitreous becomes more liquid. This process is called posterior vitreous detachment, or PVD, and can affect people of all ages. If you notice a sudden increase in frequency or quantity of floaters, especially in conjunction with flashes, these may be symptoms of a potential emergency, and you should be seen by an ophthalmologist immediately. Acute increase in floaters may be attributable to a retinal tear or detachment, which could lead to partial visual field loss or complete blindness if left untreated.
How can flashes and floaters be treated?
- While they sometimes can be a sign of more serious problems, floaters and flashes are usually just a normal part of getting older. They can be annoying, but they usually are not serious. If floaters bother you, you can try to look up and then down to move them out of the way. Floaters and flashes usually go away, or you get used to them.
- If your doctor deems it necessary, there are surgical and laser procedures used to help get rid of floaters.
- Should the flashes and floaters be caused by a retinal tear or detachment, emergent treatment will be performed. This may include lasering the detached retina back into position, or a scleral buckle surgery where a silicone belt is placed around the back of the eye and attached to the side to keep the retina in place. Your doctor will decide which procedure is best for you, and may refer you to a retina specialist.
When should you call for help?
- Sudden increase in floaters
- Sudden decrease in vision
- If you see flashes of light or a “curtain” over your vision
- If you need help adjusting to reduced vision
- If you are suddenly unable to see in certain spots of your field of vision, such as your periphery