You may have occasionally noticed a tiny speck, line, or dot that seems to hover in your field of vision, moving as your eye moves, but never quite disappearing. You will probably be pleased to learn that these ocular anomalies, commonly called “floaters”, are normal, and usually harmless. In today’s blog our Raleigh optometrist discusses what exactly causes floaters, and when they can indicate a more serious medical condition.
Floaters can appear as shadowy spots, thread-like strands, or transparent, squiggly lines. True to their name, they “float” in your field of vision, and move as your eyes move. However, they do not follow your eye movements precisely, and tend to drift when your eyes stop moving. When you try to focus on them directly, they seem to dart away. They may be easier to “see” if you look at a blank surface, such as a white wall or blue sky.
You have probably learned about the parts of the eye that are responsible for vision, like the retina, cornea, iris, and ocular nerve. The rest of the eye is full of vitreous, a gel-like substance that helps the eye hold its round shape. Factors like age and daily wear-and-tear can cause the vitreous to shrink. As it does, it becomes somewhat stringy, and some of the strands cast tiny shadows on the retina. These are what we call floaters.
The eyes are delicate organs, and having a floater every so often is simply a part of life. Since the vitreous weakens as we age, it is also normal to experience more floaters as you get older.
However, there are other, more serious causes of floaters, including eye infections, inflammation, hemorrhaging, retinal tears, and eye injuries. One of the biggest causes for concern is something called a vitreous detachment, which occurs when a section of the vitreous pulls away from the retina all at once, rather than gradually. This, by itself, is usually not sight-threatening and requires no treatment, but it can sometimes pull the retina off the back of the eye. A retinal detachment like this is an emergency situation which can cause blindness. Therefore, if you ever experience a sudden increase in floaters all at once, flashes of light, or loss of vision, don’t leave anything to chance—visit an eye care professional for treatment immediately.
If a floater is causing you significant annoyance, the primary advice is to be patient. Eventually, it should “settle” at the bottom of the eye, where you can no longer see it. If not, your brain may “filter” it out so that it is no longer distracting (our brains have evolved to focus only on anomalies in our environment, and ignore ever-present stimuli like floaters). Finally, since floaters are easiest to see in direct sunlight, you can help reduce their visibility by wearing sunglasses outside or reducing glare on your computer screen.
Raleigh Eye Center is committed to continuing to provide care during this difficult time. We have invested in “telehealth” software which will enable us to provide virtual patient consultations, and are limiting the number of patients in our office. To learn more about our new infection-prevention protocols, or to schedule an appointment, please click here.