Floaters and flashes: Don’t let them permanently cloud your view

Jules Stein Eye InstitutePerhaps you’ve sometimes seen annoying dark specks or ‘blobs’ dancing across your vision, and wondered what they were. These are often referred to as floaters – and they can be more than a mere annoyance.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, floaters are actually tiny clumps of material inside the vitreous, the clear, gel-like fluid that fills the inside of your eye.  Although floaters may look as if they’re in front of your eye, they’re actually floating inside, casting shadows on the retina.

As we grow older, it’s more common to experience floaters and flashes. When people reach middle age, UCLA eye experts note, the vitreous gel starts to shrink, forming clumps or strands inside the eye. Eventually, the vitreous gel pulls away from the back of the eye, causing an event called a posterior vitreous detachment. This will happen to everyone at some point between the ages of 50 to 75, but only about a third of people will have symptoms, said an expert with the UCLA Stein Eye Institute.

“The appearance of floaters clouding your vision may be alarming, especially if they develop very suddenly,” said Dr. Tara A. McCannel, associate professor at UCLA’s Stein Eye Institute.  “Any sudden appearance of floaters requires a retinal examination to rule out a retinal tear or retinal detachment.”

Ignoring the symptoms of floaters and flashes may result in serious disease progression such as retinal detachment that can lead to vision loss.

“If floaters suddenly appear or appear with flashing lights,” McCannel says, “you must consult an ophthalmologist immediately.”

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends calling an ophthalmologist right away if you notice the following symptoms, especially if you’re over 45 years of age, have had an injury to your eyes or head, or if you have substantial nearsightedness:

  • A sudden increase in size and number of floaters
  • A sudden appearance of flashes
  • Having a shadow or curtain appear in the side of your field of vision
  • Seeing a gray curtain moving across your field of vision
  • Any decrease in your vision

A torn or detached retina can usually be repaired with a surgical procedure.  Sealing the retina to the eye’s back wall with laser surgery can treat most retinal tears without a detachment. Once there is a retinal detachment, vitreoretinal surgery is recommended.

If the retina is not placed back in its proper position, it loses its ability to function. Furthermore, a detached retinal may pre-dispose one to scar tissue that can require more than one operation to repair.

“For this reason, it is imperative to see your ophthalmologist at the first sign of any trouble with your vision,” stressed McCannel. “Prevention of retinal detachment or early treatment of retinal detachment results in better final vision.”

A few months back, I had the first of these symptoms. Lucky for me, a colleague had just read a UCLA Health “Vital Signs” article about floaters and flashes, and he urged me to contact a doctor right away. I did and saw an eye specialist at UCLA’s Stein Eye Institute who performed a thorough eye exam to make sure that a retinal tear hadn’t occurred.

My eyesight is fine for now.

My fears were eased when my eye doctor told me what to look for in the coming months.  She said that, if the floaters and flashes appeared to dramatically increase in the next few weeks, I should come in right away because that could be an indication of a retina detachment. She also scheduled me for a follow-up, because the retina is most susceptible in the first months following the sudden appearance of floaters and flashes.

Just as important, I now know what to look for in the future – and am grateful I have this knowledge.

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