What are eye floaters?
Eye floaters are small dark shapes in your field of vision. They can appear as specks, dots, strings, squiggles or cobwebs. Floaters often drift in your field of vision. They may appear to follow your vision as your eyes move. Then, they float away when you try to look directly at them. Floaters are most noticeable when you look at something plain and bright, such as the sky, white paper, or a computer monitor.
Floaters are remnants of gel-like substance—the vitreous—that fills the eyeball. As you age, the vitreous tends to liquify and change consistency. When this happens, microscopic clumps and strands of collagen can form. The vitreous can also pull away from the back of the eye, liberating collagen strands that end up floating. What you see as a floater is actually the shadow of these clumps of degenerating vitreous cast on the retina—the tissue at the back of your eye that processes light.
Most of the time floaters are harmless. If floaters inside the eye appear suddenly, it may be a sign of retinal tear or detachment. These are serious conditions that require emergency care from an eye specialist. Seek immediate medical care if you have any of these potentially serious symptoms:
Dark curtain covering part of your vision
Flashes of light in your peripheral vision (outside your center of vision)
Loss of your peripheral vision (darkness outside your center of vision)
Sudden appearance or increase in floaters
What other symptoms might occur with eye floaters?
Floaters are usually harmless and occur without any other eye floaters symptoms.
Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition
Sometimes, the presence of eye floaters can be a sign of a serious condition. If eye floaters appear suddenly or suddenly increase in number, it may be a sign of a retinal tear or retinal detachment. These conditions are medical emergencies that require care from an eye specialist. Seek immediate medical care if you have the following symptoms:
Persistent flashes of light in your peripheral vision
Sudden deterioration of vision
Darkness covering part of your vision or at the sides of your vision (peripheral vision loss)
Sudden appearance of floaters
Sudden increase in the number of floaters
What causes eye floaters?
In most cases, aging is the cause of eye floaters. The aging process causes changes in the vitreous, which is the gel-like substance that fills the eyeball. The vitreous helps the eye maintain its round shape. Aging can cause the vitreous to condense, liquify, and change consistency. Clumps and strands of vitreous debris can form in the vitreous with these changes. The vitreous can also detach itself from the retina as it shrinks away from the back of the eye. This is posterior vitreous detachment.
The clumps of degenerated collagen that make up floaters drift in and out of your field of vision. As they move within your eye, they cast a shadow on your retina. The retina is a layer of tissue at the back of your eye that processes light. When you see a floater, you are actually seeing the shadow and not the floater itself.
You are more likely to develop eye floaters if you:
Are older than 50 years of age
Have had cataract surgery
Have had eye trauma or inflammation inside the eye
Other eye floaters causes
Eye floaters can also be caused by other eye problems including:
Bleeding into the eye
Uveitis—inflammation of the uvea, which is the middle tissue layer of the eyeball wall
Serious or life-threatening causes of eye floaters
In some cases, eye floaters may be a symptom of a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:
What are the potential complications of eye floaters?
Eye floaters due to aging can be annoying, but are usually harmless and do not require treatment. Floaters usually go away over time. Most people are able to adjust and learn to ignore them.
In rare cases, dense or large numbers of floaters can interfere with vision. Traction from the shrinking vitreous may also damage the delicate retina. If this happens, your ophthalmologist may recommend vitrectomy. This eye floaters treatment is a surgical procedure to remove the vitreous, along with the debris that has collected in it. Your doctor will replace the vitreous with a salt solution. There are significant risks with a vitrectomy, so it is usually a last resort for severe vision impairment due to floaters.