Seeing spots or floaters in your eyes for the first time can be disconcerting and even a little alarming.
How do you know whether to worry? Let's talk about this!
While most floaters are normal, some can be a sign of underlying problems that you should address with your eye doctor.
Here are some things to know about floaters and how to respond.
What are eye floaters—and what are they doing in my eye?
Eye floaters appear as little irregularities that drift slowly across your field of vision. Floaters often look like:
- Little darkish spots or specks,
- Threads or strings, or
- Fragments of cobwebs
Floaters in the eye aren’t optical illusions. They’re little bits of debris floating around in your vitreous: the jelly-like filling of your eyeball that helps keep its shape. Sometimes, as these floaters move around, they cast shadows on your retina. This is what you see.
What causes eye floaters?
Most of the time, age-related changes in your vitreous are the cause of eye floaters. As your eyes get older, the vitreous jelly deteriorates: it becomes more liquid, starts to sag and pull away from the inside of your eyeball, and some of the former gel clumps. The shadows of these stringy bits are what you see.
Floaters can also occur when the vitreous detaches from the surface of your retina. The stimulation of the retina during this process will often cause flashes in the eye. The moment the vitreous pulls away from the head of your optic nerve, it can make a ring-shaped floater appear temporarily.
Occasionally, this detachment will pull a bit of your retina with it. This retinal detachment leaks blood into your vitreous, which appears as a scatter of small dots and needs immediate attention from your eye doctor.
Bleeding and inflammation in the eye, from retinal tears, blood vessel problems or other injuries, tends to cause floaters in general. Floaters can also be small specks of protein and other material that was trapped in your eye as it was forming before birth.
When to call an eye doctor
Eye floaters and flashes in the eye are an urgent matter for your eye doctor, especially if they appear suddenly. They often signal retinal detachments, which could cause blindness.
You should always mention any vision changes or eye problems, whether floaters or something else, to your eye doctor during your regular exams. Floaters are occasionally only visible during eye exams, especially if they are close to your retina.
Treatment for eye floaters
Most eye floaters don’t need to be treated. While learning to cope with them costs some time and frustration, many people are able to ignore them more easily over time.
When floaters are so large or so numerous they impair your vision, your eye doctor may recommend surgery or laser therapy to remove them.
Laser therapy for eye floaters
In laser therapy, your eye doctor aims a laser at the debris in your vitreous in order to break them up and make them smaller and less apparent.
Laser therapy for floaters is still experimental and not widely used. While some people see improvement after laser therapy, others see little to no difference, and the laser can damage the retina if it’s aimed incorrectly.
Surgery for eye floaters
Vitrectomy is a surgery where your eye doctor removes the vitreous in your eye through a small incision, replacing it with a solution to maintain your eye’s shape. Your body naturally creates new vitreous that will gradually replace this solution. Vitrectomy doesn’t always remove eye floaters completely. New floaters can still form afterward, especially if the surgery itself causes bleeding and retinal tears.
While most floaters are harmless, the sudden onset of floaters and flashes can be an urgent warning sign from your eyes. Call your eye doctor any time you experience sudden changes in your eye. Regular eye exams are also important for keeping your doctor up to date on any changes, and so your doctor can help detect floaters and other abnormalities in your eye.