When Are Floaters a Medical Problem?

When Are Floaters a Medical Problem?

By the time they reach 80, about a third of adults experience floaters — black spots, squiggly lines, or other dark shapes that move through your visual field. No amount of blinking gets rid of them, and they follow your gaze wherever you look. 

They’re a nuisance, but are they a medical problem?

At Omphroy Eye Care in Aiea, Hawaii, board-certified ophthalmologist Dr. Luis C. Omphroy and our team specialize in diagnosing and treating visual floaters. Since floaters can sometimes be a sign of a serious problem, we offer same-day evaluations to quickly determine what you’re seeing and why. 

Non-serious cause of floaters

There are three primary causes of visual floaters, with the most common type being completely harmless.

The biggest cause of floaters is simple aging. Your body changes as you get older, and one of these changes is the development of visual floaters.

In the middle of your eyeball is a chamber filled with a gel-like substance called the vitreous humor. When you see age-related floaters, what you’re actually seeing are small, solidified parts of that humor. The vitreous naturally contracts over time, and the particles drift slowly through the gel as a result.

At the back of your eye lies the retina, which converts incoming light into electrical signals that it sends through the optic nerve to the brain for processing.

As they drift, vitreal floaters can move in front of the macula (the central 2% of the retina), casting a shadow or shape. The retina encodes this information along with the light, and your brain includes them in the final image you see.

Age-related floaters usually don’t need treatment, if this is what you have.They’re definitely annoying to look at, but you get used to them over time, and they eventually settle to the bottom of the chamber, where you don’t see them as readily.

Serious causes of floaters

There are two conditions for which floaters indicate that something is very wrong.


With posterior uveitis, the back of the eye becomes inflamed. It can result from inflammatory disease, a pathogenic infection, or a number of other problems. 

The inflammation releases debris into the vitreous that you see as floaters. It’s important to treat the underlying condition to prevent damage to your eye tissue and your sight.

Retinal tears and retinal detachment

Retinal tears and detachments are both serious medical emergencies. You can go blind if they’re not treated immediately. If the vitreous shrinks and pulls on the retinal tissue with sufficient force, the tissue can tear.

Fluid from the inner eye can leak through a retinal tear, and when it does, the pressure in the tissue builds up until it yanks the entire retina away from its support, causing a retinal detachment.

Retinal detachments usually happen suddenly, commonly from a blow to the head from a car accident or a sports injury. 

With a retinal tear or detachment — unlike age-related floaters — you’ll know you have a medical emergency. In addition to seeing a host of new floaters, you’ll experience symptoms that include flashes of light and shadows blocking parts of your vision. 

Come into Omphroy Eye Care ASAP or go to your local emergency room.

Treating floaters

Dr. Omphroy can treat your floaters, no matter what the cause.

If they’re due to age-related vitreous detachments, treatment is usually a wait-and-see affair. If they affect your ability to see clearly, Dr. Omphroy provides two options: 

If your floaters result from posterior uveitis, Dr. Omphroy prescribes steroids to calm the inflammation, which decreases the appearance of floaters.

If your floaters result from a retinal tear, Dr. Omphroy may opt either for cryotherapy (freezing) or a laser procedure to prevent progression. 

If your floaters result from a retinal detachment, though, surgery is often the best option. Dr. Omphroy decides which procedure is most appropriate for you given the nature of the detachment. 

If you suddenly see a bunch of floaters in your vision, it may be nothing serious, or it may be a medical emergency. That’s why you need to come into Omphroy Eye Care ASAP for an evaluation, so you don’t lose your sight. To get started, give our office a call today.

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