Nearly everyone experiences “floaters” or flashes of light at some point. Floaters and flashes of light are often harmless and do not require medical attention. But according to Dr. Raymond Stein, in certain circumstances, floaters and flashes may indicate something serious happening inside the eye.
Understanding Floaters and Flashes of Light
Floaters and flashes of light commonly occur due to normal, age-related changes inside the eye.
In youth, the material inside your eyeball, called the vitreous, has a consistency similar to jelly. The vitreous is made up of strands of material called collagen. At several points, the vitreous is attached to your retina, or the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of your eye and transmits information from the eye to your brain. With advancing age, the vitreous starts to shrink and liquify, and strands of the material float around inside your eyeball more than they did in youth.
If you develop a floater, what you will see is the shadow that a floating strand of material casts on your retina (rather than the strand itself). Your floaters may take the shape of specks, strands, circles, cobwebs or clouds. They may look black, dark or semi-transparent. Floaters are nearly impossible to focus on; if you move your eyes to try to focus on the floater, it will appear to dart away.
As your eye ages and the vitreous inside shrinks, it can also rub or pull against your retina, which is very sensitive. This causes the illusion of flashes of flickering light or lightning streaks.
When to See a Doctor About Floaters and Flashes
In most cases, floaters and flashes of light are harmless and nothing to worry about. However, sometimes they can indicate something serious threatening the health and function of the eye.
For example, if the vitreous tugs hard enough on the retina, it can actually cause a retinal tear; if vitreous gets through the tear, it can force the retina out of its normal position along the back wall of the eye. This is a complication known as retinal detachment, and it is very serious.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, you may have a serious complication and should see a doctor as soon as possible:
- A recent onset or “shower” of floaters and flashes of light
- Loss of peripheral vision
- What appears to be a dark curtain or veil being drawn across your visual field
- Rapid decline of central vision
If you have questions about floaters or flashes, or if you are concerned about recent changes in your vision, please contact Dr. Stein today.