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Those little specks known as eye floaters are common and often harmless. An America’s Best optometrist explains what’s behind them — and when to take action.
If you’ve ever noticed tiny specks or dots in your field of vision that seem to move around, you’ve experienced the phenomenon of eye “floaters.”
“At some point in time, everyone will get floaters,” says Sean Noonan, O.D., an optometrist who practices at America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Apache Junction, Arizona. “It just comes with aging. There’s no avoiding it. Some people earlier in life, some people later in life,” he notes. Though they typically will begin to appear in people in their 50s.
While this brings a certain level of comfort, we asked Dr. Noonan to shed more light on what’s happening in the eye to cause floaters — and what can be done about them.
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If floaters are a normal part of aging, will we all experience the same types of specks?
Not necessarily, says Dr. Noonan. Normal floaters can take on almost any shape — but the vast majority look like small spots or strings.
As for the color, they will appear black, gray, or sometimes seemingly transparent. They can be seen anywhere in your field of vision and can move around, coming in and out of your view. “That doesn’t mean they can’t be stationary, but they will typically drift around,” says Dr. Noonan.
What’s happening in the eye to cause floaters?
Essentially, the jelly-like substance that fills the eye changes in consistency. It becomes less thick, causing proteins and other structures to move around and clump together. This creates little dense pockets that cast shadows reflected onto the back of the eye and are seen as floaters. The older you are, the more likely you are to experience floaters.
Since the back of the eye has no pain receptors, floaters aren’t painful, he adds. But they are elusive. “If you try to look at them, they’ll kind of jump around and move away from you, because it’s almost like the eye is like a snow globe,” he says.
Most floaters will disappear or sink out of sight. In some cases, the eye reabsorbs the material that forms the dense pocket. In other cases, the brain simply adjusts. “It’s as though the brain says, ‘Okay this is normal — I’m just going to ignore it,’” Dr. Noonan adds.
“When floaters are a new occurrence, the brain makes us aware of them. But it’s kind of like when we’re wearing clothes. You don’t feel them on your skin all the time because the brain treats it as normal and filters it out,” he says.
Is there anything that triggers floaters?
There are a few to be aware of, says Dr. Noonan.
Bright light. While bright light won’t bring on floaters, it can make you more aware that they’re there. “I’ve had a lot of patients who when they go into a store that has real intense fluorescent lighting, they notice them more,” he says.
Myopia. Floaters are more commonly noticed in people who are nearsighted.
Injuries. Floaters may appear after an injury, such as impact from an airbag during a car accident. This is not unusual and occurs when the gel that fills the eyeball separates from the retina, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Floaters can also be a temporary aftereffect of LASIK surgery.
Are floaters generally no big deal?
Floaters that are the result of an injury should be addressed right away. But the occasional floater that comes and goes is usually nothing to be concerned about, says Dr. Noonan.
“You could even have a little floater that has been there for decades, and it is likely not an issue,” he says.
That said, you don’t want to ignore them. “Bring these occasional floaters up with your eye doctor,” he advises. Don’t wait for your annual eye exam. Let your optometrist know of any new vision changes you’re experiencing so they can rule out any serious underlying problems.
When are floaters a problem?
There are times when floaters are signs of more serious eye issues, including when they are the result of an eye injury, Dr. Noonan says. Here are some of the eye conditions associated with floaters.
Retinal issues. If you experience a sudden shower of floaters — as though they were dumped into your field of vision — that could be an indicator of a retinal tear or retinal detachment, says Dr. Noonan.
“There may be real quick flashes of light, almost like lightning bolts or a camera flash,” he says. “If you see some flashes of light and then a bunch of floaters, it could still mean nothing. But it could also mean a retinal issue.”
In such cases, he recommends seeing an optometrist as early as possible. Catching a retinal issue early on can preserve vision and keep your sight from worsening.
Blood vessel issues. Floaters that are reddish in color could indicate a broken blood vessel in the back of the eye, especially if it is accompanied with a decrease in vision.
“If a floater looks red and you’re noticing a pretty substantial drop in your vision, you definitely want to get that checked out quickly,” he says.
Once again, time is of the essence. A blood vessel issue could indicate a serious problem that, if resolved in time, protects your vision.
Your optometrist would begin by pinpointing the underlying cause of the broken blood vessel or vessels. It could be blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol — or nothing at all.
“Some blood vessel issues, you just have to wait it out,” explains Dr. Noonan. “It could be one broken blood vessel, but everything looks okay, so you just wait for it to heal.” But if the bleeding is due to a clot or a tear, you may require medical treatment.
“It all depends on what caused the bleeding and the severity,” he says. With retinal issues, the longer a blood vessel problem goes undiagnosed, the more damage that can be done.
Bottom line: Make the call to your optometrist if you’ve experienced floaters. They can rule out problems, answer questions, and make sure you have the information you need to see your best.