What Are Flashes and Floaters?

older man in blue jacket

Have you ever noticed a squiggly line in the corner of your eye that seems to disappear when you try to look at it? Seeing a floater in your eye is a common experience for many people.

Floaters can appear as specks, thin strings, or wispy cobwebs, but what exactly are they? Keep reading to learn more about floaters and their close relative flashes.

Are Floaters Objects In Your Eye?

A floater is not an actual object but rather a shadow hitting the retina in the back of your eye. Clumps of gel or cells floating in your vitreous create the shadows that you see as floaters.

Your vitreous is a transparent jelly-like substance, and floaters get suspended in it. The gel moves when your eye attempts to focus on an object, and the floater moves with the gel. That is why you can never focus on a floater.

What Does The Vitreous Do?

The vitreous exists to support the eye, giving it structure. It connects to the retina and fills the back two-thirds of the eyeball.

Your cornea and lens focus light as it enters your eye and flows into the vitreous. The transparency of the vitreous allows light to pass through it to your retina.

The retina senses light and converts it into energy. Then the retina sends that energy to the brain as electrical impulses through the optic nerve.

Who Experiences Floaters?

Anyone can experience floaters, but their rate of occurrence increases as you age because the vitreous shrinks and becomes stringy as you get older. This stringiness creates the shadows that cause floaters.

One-quarter of patients will experience vitreous shrinkage and age-related floaters in their sixties. Two-thirds of patients will experience them by their eighties.

Other factors that may cause a noticeable increase in floaters include:

  • Nearsightedness
  • Eye injury
  • Eye surgery
  • Diabetes

Where Do Flashes Come From?

Along with floaters, many people also experience sudden flashes of light in their eyes. These can seem more alarming than floaters, but they are also quite common.

Flashes happen when the vitreous pulls against the retina. The retina is an incredibly sensitive sheet of tissue, so even a light tug can cause a flash.

Floaters and flashes alone are not harmful, even if they are distracting. But a dramatic increase in flashes or floaters can be a sign of something more serious.

Floaters As A Warning Sign

Experiencing a sudden wave of floaters or flashes can indicate a more severe problem. You could be experiencing a posterior vitreous detachment.

Detachment occurs when the vitreous shrinks so much it pulls tight against the retina. Vitreous detachment is quite common and isn’t a threat to vision.

But, vitreous detachment can lead to a retinal tear which can create much more severe problems. Even a tiny retinal tear can allow fluids to flow behind the retina, which can pose a serious threat to your eyesight.

If enough fluids get behind your retina, the pressure can cause it to detach from the inner wall of your eye. Retinal detachment can result in permanent vision loss in that eye. If you experience a sharp increase in floaters or flashes, seek medical help as soon as possible.

There are also other symptoms of retinal tearing and detachment. These include vision loss that looks like a curtain-like shadow over your eyes and a sharp decline in your center vision. 

If you live with a large number of floaters, then your vision won’t be dramatically affected. Your floaters may disappear, or you might barely notice their presence. Plus, you can shift floaters out of your sight by moving your eyes.

If you find your floaters too distracting, schedule an appointment at Vermont Eye Laser in South Burlington, VT. We can discuss potential treatments for your floaters and flashes.

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