Eye floaters are tiny specks or strings that float into your field of vision. While they may be a nuisance, eye floaters should not cause you any pain or discomfort.
Eye floaters can appear as black or gray dots, lines, cobwebs, or blobs. Occasionally, a large floater may cast a shadow over your vision and cause a large, dark spot in your sight. Because the floaters are inside the fluid of your eye, they will move as your eyes move. If you try to look right at them, they will dart out of your vision.
Eye floaters commonly appear when you stare at a bright, plain surface, such as the sky, a reflective object, or blank paper. Eye floaters may be present in only one eye, or they may be in both.
What causes eye floaters?
Age-related changes to the eye are the most common cause of eye floaters. The cornea and lens at the front of the eye focus light onto the retina at the back of the eye. As the light passes from the front of the eye to the back, it passes through the vitreous humor, a jelly-like substance inside your eyeball.
Changes to the vitreous humor can lead to eye floaters. This is a common part of aging and is known as vitreous syneresis. The thick vitreous begins to liquefy with age and the inside of the eyeball becomes crowded with debris and deposits. The microscopic fibers inside the vitreous begin to clump together. As they do, the debris can be caught in the path of the light as it passes through your eye. This will cast shadows on your retina, causing eye floaters.
Less common causes of eye floaters include:
- eye injury: if the eye is hit by an object or damaged during an accident, you may experience more eye floaters
- nearsightedness: people who are nearsighted experience eye floaters more frequently. Vitreous syneresis also occurs at a faster pace in people who have nearsighted vision
- inflammation: swelling and inflammation in the eye, often caused by infection, can cause eye floaters
- deposits: crystal-like deposits may form in the vitreous and interfere with light passing from the front of the eye to the back
- diabetic retinopathy: diabetes can damage the blood vessels that lead to the retina. When those vessels become damaged, the retina may not be able to interpret the images and light hitting it
- intraocular tumors
- visual aura of a migraine headache
Eye floaters are most common after age 50. By age 70, most people will have experienced eye floaters at least once in their lives. Babies are born with clear vitreous, so it is rare for children under the age of 16 to have eye floaters.
When are eye floaters an emergency?
Call your ophthalmologist or eye care provider immediately if you see eye floaters and:
- they begin occurring more frequently or the floater changes in intensity, size, or shape
- you see flashes of light
- you lose your peripheral (side) vision
- you develop eye pain
- you have blurred vision or a loss of vision
Combined with eye floaters, these symptoms may be a sign of more dangerous conditions, such as:
As the vitreous shrinks, it slowly pulls away from the retina. If it pulls away suddenly, it may become completely detached. Symptoms include seeing flashes and floaters.
Bleeding in the eye, also known as a vitreous hemorrhage, can cause eye floaters. The bleeding may be caused by an infection, injury, or blood vessel leak.
As the vitreous turns to liquid, the sac of gel will begin to pull on the retina. Eventually the stress may be enough to tear the retina completely.
If a retinal tear is not treated quickly, the retina can become detached and separate from the eye. This can lead to complete and permanent vision loss.
How are eye floaters treated?
Most eye floaters don’t need any type of treatment. They are often only a nuisance in otherwise healthy people, and they rarely signal a more serious problem. If a floater is temporarily obstructing your vision, roll your eyes from side to side and up and down to move the debris. As the fluid in your eye shifts, so will the floaters.
However, eye floaters can impair your vision, especially if the underlying condition worsens. The floaters may become so bothersome and numerous that you have difficulty seeing. If this occurs, in rare cases your doctor may recommend treatment in the form of laser removal or surgery.
In laser removal, your ophthalmologist uses a laser to break up the eye floaters and make them less noticeable in your vision. Laser removal is not widely used because it’s considered experimental and carries serious risks such as retinal damage.
Another treatment option is surgery. Your ophthalmologist can remove the vitreous during a procedure called a vitrectomy. After the vitreous has been removed it is replaced with a sterile salt solution that will help the eye maintain its natural shape. Over time, your body will replace the solution with its own natural fluid. A vitrectomy may not remove all the eye floaters, and it will also not prevent new eye floaters from developing. This procedure, which is also considered highly risky, can cause damage or tears to the retina and bleeding.
What happens if eye floaters are not treated?
Eye floaters are rarely troublesome enough to cause additional problems, unless they are a symptom of a more serious condition. Though they will never fully disappear, they often improve over the course of a few weeks or months.
How can you prevent eye floaters?
Most eye floaters occur as part of the natural aging process. While you can’t prevent eye floaters, you can make sure they’re not the result of a larger problem. As soon as you begin noticing eye floaters, see your ophthalmologist. They will want to make sure your eye floaters are not a symptom of a more serious condition that could damage your vision.