What to Know About Seeing Stars in Your Vision

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on May 30, 2023
4 min read

Have you ever stood up too fast or rubbed your eyes, only to notice that your vision was covered in flashes of light? You may have described it or heard it described as “seeing stars.” The medical term for seeing stars is photopsia. 

This condition can be one of many symptoms that indicate various health problems, including a concussion or an eye structure concern. Photopsia is also described as:

  • eye flashes
  • ‌seeing sparks
  • bands of light
  • ‌bright dots
  • ‌zig zag of light
  • ‌flickers
  • sparklers
  • ‌as an array of colors in flashes of light

‌Seeing stars in any of these forms may be harmless, or it may be a symptom of a more serious health issue that needs emergency care.

Seeing stars happens when pressure is applied to your eye while your eyes are closed. Illusions of bright light, sparks, or various colors may appear. Seeing stars is common and is included as a symptom for various medical issues. Due to the symptom being so common, it can be difficult for your physician to diagnose the exact cause. 

Seeing stars may result from pressure or an impact to your eye or head. It’s important for you to note all of the factors that may be involved in creating this visual disturbance.

Photopsia by itself is not harmful. Some actions that may cause you to see stars include:

  • Sneezing or coughing. The pressure of squeezing your eyes shut while sneezing or coughing can cause the visual of seeing stars to emerge.
  • ‌‌Rubbing your eyes. When you rub your eyes, you apply pressure to them. You may temporarily see stars after this action. In this case, the stars you see are created with electrical activity as you stimulate your eye cells. 
  • Going from sitting to standing quickly can cause a drop in blood pressure that can cause stars or brief dimming of vision.
  • MRI scan. Getting a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan can stimulate your visual cortex because it changes your body’s magnetic field. As a result, you may see flashes of light.
  • ‌EEG testing. EEGs stimulate the retina and may create the “seeing stars” visual effect. This may happen because of the amount of stimulation your brain receives during the test.

Photopsia may happen as a symptom of a more serious medical condition. Some of these medical conditions or injuries may require immediate or emergency care.  

Migraines with aura. Visual migraines can cause flashes of light to happen in both your eyes due to sensory disturbances. When seeing stars accompanies a migraine, it’s important to immediately see your physician for a medical assessment. This symptom may be related to a serious medical condition such as a stroke or retinal tear.

Concussion. A sudden impact to your head can cause trauma not only to your brain, but it also jars the vitreous gel inside of your eyeball. The physical impact that caused the head injury may result in visuals of seeing stars and flashes of light. An injury like this needs medical attention right away.

Retinal detachment. The thin membrane responsible for housing light receptors can become detached and create blackness in part of your vision with flashes of light. To prevent eyesight loss, emergency treatment is needed.

Preeclampsia in pregnancy. Preeclampsia is diagnosed in pregnant women who experience high blood pressure. It may include seeing stars. This condition develops after the 20th week of pregnancy. It has serious effects on both the expectant mother and the unborn child. The mother may have problems such as headaches and liver failure. The unborn child may be deprived of nourishment and oxygen due to the decreased blood flow to the placenta.

Wet macular degeneration. Seeing various forms of light in swirling forms, sparkles, and accompanied by color may be a sign of this condition.

Medications. Some medications meant to treat illnesses like malaria contain chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which may cause the symptom of seeing stars.

Diabetes. Vision changes can occur when your retina’s blood vessels are damaged due to high blood sugar levels. Eye floaters often accompany seeing stars or sparks when this occurs.

Treatment isn’t always needed for photopsia. It may get better on its own if you treat the underlying condition that may be causing it.

You can take preventative measures to help your eyes stay in good health. These measures include regular eye exams, a healthy diet, eye protection during physical activity, and getting medical treatment if you get hurt. If you have sudden changes in your vision, see your doctor right away.