Eye Floaters: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Eye floaters are small spots that drift through your field of vision. They may stand out when you look at something bright, like white paper or a blue sky. They might annoy you, but they shouldn’t interfere with your sight.

If you have a large floater, it can cast a slight shadow over your vision. But this tends to happen only in certain types of light.

You can learn to live with floaters and ignore them. You may notice them less as time passes. Only rarely do they get bad enough to require treatment.

What Are the Symptoms?

Floaters earn their name by moving around in your eye. They tend to dart away when you try to focus on them.

They come in many different shapes:

  • Black or gray dots
  • Squiggly lines
  • Threadlike strands, which can be knobby and almost see-through
  • Cobwebs
  • Rings

Once you get them, they usually don’t go away. But they might get better over time.

What Causes Them?

Most floaters are small flecks of a protein called collagen. They’re part of a gel-like substance in the back of your eye called the vitreous.

As you age, the protein fibers that make up the vitreous shrink down to little shreds that clump together. The shadows they cast on your retina are floaters. If you see a flash, it’s because the vitreous has pulled away from the retina. If that happens, see your eye doctor ASAP.

These changes can happen at any age, but usually occur between 50 and 75. You’re more likely to have them if you’re nearsighted or have had cataract surgery.

It’s rare, but floaters can also result from:

Serious eye disorders associated with floaters include:

  • Detached retina
  • Torn retina
  • Bleeding in your vitreous
  • Inflamed vitreous or retina caused by infections or an autoimmune condition
  • Eye tumors

There is one unique form of eye floater linked with the visual aura that can come with a migraine headache. It could look like what you see when you put your eye to a kaleidoscope. It might even move. It’s different from the floaters and flashbulb type “flashes” that come with other eye problems.

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When to See the Doctor

If you only have a few eye floaters that don't change over time, don’t sweat it.

Go to the doctor ASAP if you notice:

  • A sudden increase in the number of floaters
  • Flashes of light
  • A loss of side vision
  • Changes that come on quickly and get worse over time
  • Floaters after eye surgery or eye trauma
  • Eye pain

Choose a doctor who has experience with retina problems. If you don’t get help right away, you could lose your sight.

How Are Floaters Treated?

Benign ones almost never require medical treatment.

If they annoy you, try to get them out of your field of vision. Move your eyes -- this shifts the fluid around. Look up and down, that usually works better than side to side.

If you have so many that they block your vision, your eye doctor may suggest surgery called a vitrectomy. He’ll remove the vitreous and replace it with a salt solution.

You might have complications like:

The risk is low, but if these problems happen, they can permanently damage your vision.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Alan Kozarsky, MD on March 22, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

PreventBlindness.org: "Floaters," "Floaters Fact Sheet."

The Merck Manual for Healthcare Professionals: "Floaters."

National Eye Institute: "Facts About Floaters," "Facts About Vitreous Detachment."

Tan, H.S. American Journal of Ophthalmology, June 2011.

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