Almost everyone has experienced the visual disturbances commonly referred to as “floaters” or “flashes” at one point or another in their lifetime. “Floater” is the umbrella term used to describe all of the threads, specks, squigglies or other shapes that occasionally drift across our line of sight. “Flashes,” on the other hand, are streaks or strands of light that flicker across the visual field. While both visual disturbances are generally harmless, they could be warning signs of deeper trouble in the eye, especially when they appear out of nowhere or suddenly increase in frequency.
What are Floaters?
Floaters are collections of loose cells or protein strands suspended in the vitreous humor, the clear, gel-like substance that fills the rear half of the eye and gives it its shape. The vitreous humor provides a medium through which light can travel on its way to the retina after it enters the lens. Interestingly enough, when one sees a floater in their field of vision they are not actually seeing the cell or protein clusters that are suspended in the vitreous humor; they are actually seeing the shadow of these objects on the retina itself. Generally speaking, you are more likely to see floaters when looking at plain, monochromatic objects like a white wall or the clear blue sky. However, they are always present, not just when you see them.
Floaters are the result of a naturally-occurring process called posterior vitreous detachment. As the vitreous of the eye thickens or shrinks, clumps or strands start to form within it. These clumps or strands ultimately cast shadows on the retina, leading you to see floaters. While floaters are not always serious, you are more likely to get them if your eye is swollen, you’ve had surgery for cataracts in the past, or if you are nearsighted.
What are Flashes?
Flashes are similar to floaters in the fact that they are both the direct result of abnormalities in the vitreous humor. However, this class of visual disturbance is the result of the gel-like vitreous humor rubbing or pulling on the retina itself. They are often the result of direct trauma to the eye or head and can last for days or weeks following an injury. When people say they are “seeing stars,” they are actually describing this common visual disturbance.
If you suddenly begin to see flashes, call Center for Sight immediately at 850-476-9236, as this could be a sign that your retina has torn or your optic nerve is damaged.
Visual disturbances like floaters and flashes affect people in different ways depending on the anatomy of their eye and their underlying cause. Most of the time, they’re not serious, but there are some critical symptoms you should be on the lookout for that could point to a larger problem that needs to be addressed. These include things like:
- Additional visual symptoms, like a significant reduction in peripheral vision. This could be a sign that there is a more significant underlying problem and you should consult a retina specialist immediately
- Flashes of light that carry on for long periods of time
- The sudden appearance of a new, large floater, or a collection of floaters
Diagnosing and Treating Visual Disturbances
Fortunately, diagnosing visual disturbances like floaters and flashers is oftentimes easy. Most of the time, your eye doctor will be able to determine the extent of your condition by way of a comprehensive eye exam. How your physician will ultimately treat floaters or flashers depends entirely on the underlying cause.