By the time they reach 80, about a third of adults experience floaters — black spots, squiggly lines, or other dark shapes that appear in your visual field. No amount of blinking makes them go away, and they follow along wherever you look. They’re a nuisance, but are they harmful?
At Omphroy Eye Care in Aiea, Hawaii, board-certified ophthalmologist and cataract surgeon Dr. Luis C. Omphroy and our team specialize in diagnosing and treating visual floaters. We offer same-day evaluations to quickly determine what you’re seeing and why.
Floaters can be startling if you’ve never seen them before, but the good news is that most cases are due to specks in your vitreous humor, a liquid-filled chamber inside your eye. They’re completely harmless.
That said, sometimes they can be a sign of a more serious condition, so you should always get them checked out.
Causes of floaters and the risks they pose
There are three primary causes of visual floaters, and they range from completely harmless to get-medical-help-ASAP severe.
Your body changes as you get older, and some ways are less than enjoyable or comfortable. One of these changes is the development of visual floaters.
Located In the middle of your eye is a chamber filled with a gel-like material called the vitreous humor. When you see age-related floaters, you’re seeing small, solidified parts of that humor. The vitreous naturally contracts over time, causing the particles to drift slowly through the gel.
At the back of your eye lies the light-sensing retina, which converts incoming light into electrical signals that the optic nerve then sends to the brain for processing.
As they move, vitreal floaters can drift in front of the macula (the central portion of the retina), casting a shadow or shape. The retina encodes this information as part of what you’re looking at, and your brain includes them in the final image you see.
Floaters are an extremely common condition, and when the shrinking of the vitreous is the cause, you usually don’t need treatment. Sure, they’re annoying, but you get pretty used to them over time. Eventually, they settle to the bottom of the chamber, and you don’t see them as readily.
Posterior uveitis is a condition in which the back of the eye becomes inflamed. It can be the result of inflammatory disease, a pathogenic infection, or a number of other problems. The inflammation releases debris into the vitreous that you see as floaters.
Retinal tears and retinal detachment
Retinal tears and detachments are serious medical emergencies. You can lose your sight if they’re not immediately treated. When the vitreous shrinks, if it pulls on the retina with sufficient force, the retinal tissue can tear.
Fluid from the inner eye can seep through a retinal tear. When it does, the pressure in the tissue builds until the entire retina pulls away from its support, causing a retinal detachment.
Retinal detachments usually happen suddenly, most often from a blow to the head from a car accident or a sports injury.
You’ll know you have a medical emergency since, in addition to a swarm of new floaters, you’ll experience symptoms that include flashes of light and shadows obscuring your vision.
Dr. Omphroy can treat floaters, no matter what the cause.
If your floaters are due to age-related vitreous detachments, treatment is almost always a wait-and-see affair. If they affect your ability to see clearly, Dr. Omphroy can provide two options:
- Laser treatment to disrupt them
- Vitrectomy surgery to remove the vitreous body
If your floaters come from posterior uveitis, Dr. Omphroy can prescribe steroids to calm the inflammation and decrease the appearance of floaters.
If your floaters come from a retinal tear, Dr. Omphroy may use either cryotherapy (freezing) or a laser procedure to prevent progression.
If your floaters come from a retinal detachment, surgical options are usually necessary. Dr. Omphroy decides which procedure is most appropriate given the exact nature of the detachment.
Are floaters harmful? Usually, no, but you need to come into Omphroy Eye Care as soon as possible so Dr. Omphroy can determine their cause. Give us a call to set up an urgent or same-day appointment.