Eye Floaters: What are They and Do I Have Them?
Eye floaters are dark or transparent spots that appear in your field of vision and drift across your line of sight. They’re usually the result of changes to the vitreous of the eye as you age. Floaters are most apparent when under a bright light like the sun, or while looking at a bright background like a white wall.
But there can be more to eye floaters than these symptoms. To learn more about eye floaters, we’ll look at:
- What causes eye floaters
- When you should worry about eye floaters
- Talking to your doctor about eye floaters
Eye floaters are mostly harmless and appear as you age. However, they sometimes signal a more serious underlying problem with your eye. Be sure to seek immediate medical attention if you’re experiencing more eye floaters than usual or other problems with your vision.
What causes eye floaters?
Eye floaters come in a variety of shapes and colors. They’re usually gray or black and are often described as looking like strings, specks, or cobwebs. While painless, the cause of eye floaters is usually problems with the vitreous (the jelly-like substance that gives your eyeball its shape). That can range from simply getting older to more serious conditions such as a torn retina.
The Aging Process
As you age, the vitreous in your eyeball begins to liquefy and pull away from the interior of your eye. The result is stringy clumps of debris that prevent light from passing through. This creates shadows as light passes through your eye, resulting in what we call eye floaters.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to be older to experience eye floaters. According to Dr. Travis:
Floaters can also occur in younger people as well. Sometimes if you have a jostling of that fluid it can cause floaters to come about. For example, if you were to have a concussion or take a blow to the eye. Very near-sighted patients tend to also get floaters sooner than others due to the fact that their eye is typically a lot longer.
Retinal tears occur when the vitreous sags and tugs on the interior wall of your eye. This tugging and pulling can eventually lead to tears in your retina. In extreme cases, a retinal tear can develop into retinal detachment from the back of the eye.
These extreme cases occur since the vitreous is so tightly connected to your macula, optic nerve, and around the sides of the back of your eye. Dr. Travis explains that, “as that vitreous begins to liquify… it can start to pull or detach away from these areas. In some cases it can pull so hard that it may tear or detach your retina.”
This condition can result in permanent vision loss if left untreated. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience this condition.
Eye floaters can sometimes be caused by inflammation in the eye due to infection or disease. In the case of posterior uveitis, inflammation occurs in the back of the eye and releases debris into the vitreous. Like eye floaters caused by the aging process, the debris floats in the vitreous creating shadows that are seen as floaters.
There are other conditions that can create eye floaters in your field of vision, such as diabetes-related bleeding in the eye or due to eye surgeries and medications. What’s important to know is that they all affect the vitreous. Sometimes eye floaters are just a natural part of aging. However, they can also point to more serious underlying vision problems.
When should I worry about eye floaters?
You may not be sure if you need treatment or not if you have eye floaters. After all, they are a natural part of aging and are to be expected. What’s more, you may find the risks of surgery outweigh the benefits. This is especially true if they cause complications that result in more eye floaters.
So when should you seek treatment for eye floaters? According to Dr. Travis, a couple of floaters is no reason to worry, but, “…a sudden onset of new floaters, … a portion of your vision is missing or [you] begin to see flashes of light, that needs to be checked quickly. Those are signs and symptoms of a retinal tear or detachment which would need to be repaired quickly.”
Most importantly, you may experience peripheral (side vision) vision loss. Though painless, these symptoms indicate a much more serious condition occurring in your eye. Whether it’s a retinal tear or retinal detachment, you should seek immediate medical attention to preserve or restore your vision.
The primary risk factor for eye floaters is age. It’s estimated that around one-quarter of people develop them around 60 years old, and this increases by about two-thirds for 80-year-olds.
Other risk factors include:
- Eye trauma
- Diabetic retinopathy
- Eye inflammation
- Complications from cataract surgery
In these cases, Dr. Travis encourages you to get a dilated exam to make sure you don’t have any of these particular issues. This won’t just help with floaters—it will address their more serious underlying cause.
Talking to Your Doctor About Eye Floaters
There are a few things you can do to make discussing eye floaters with your doctor go as smoothly as possible. The main thing is to provide as much helpful information as possible.
The most important information you can provide your doctor is:
- A list of your symptoms
- Whatever medications, vitamins, and supplements you are on
- Any questions you have for your doctor
Your doctor will know how to handle eye floaters. However, asking specific questions can help you understand the situation better and alleviate any fears you may have.
Be sure to ask about:
- Why you are seeing them
- Available treatments
- If they’re permanent or not
These aren’t the only questions you can ask about. Feel free to write down any others and ask your doctor to better understand what’s going on.
Lastly, it helps to know what to expect from your eye doctor. They will want to know information such as:
- When your symptoms started
- If your symptoms are constant or sporadic
- Which eye has floaters
They will also ask questions regarding the common risk factors we mentioned earlier. After all, eye floaters can be tell-tale signs of a more serious problem. Your doctor will want to do everything they can to rule them out, or get the treatment you need as soon as possible.
Eye Floaters Treatment
Not much can be done to cure eye floaters. They’ve been known to disappear over time, but that’s not guaranteed. In most cases, the brain simply gets used to their presence and learns to ignore them. There are treatments like a vitrectomy, where a surgeon removes the fluid from your eye. However, the benefits aren’t worth the risk of serious complications.
Laser surgery is being experimented with as a treatment, but it’s still in the early stages of development. As Dr. Travis puts it, “I don’t think I would have that procedure performed due to potential risks if the doctor were to miss when attempting to hit it with the laser.”
Eye floaters are fairly common, especially as you grow older and your vitreous begins to liquefy. Most people shouldn’t be too concerned with eye floaters since they’re a natural part of aging. On the other hand, you may want to talk to your doctor if your symptoms worsen. Providing the right information and knowing what to ask are essential to getting treatment if this is the case.