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Eye floaters are spots you see in your field of vision. They are common and usually harmless.
Some spots can move around, while other floaters appear stationary. Other people may see flashes of light instead of spots, which can look like someone is turning the light switch on and off. These symptoms occur from changes in the vitreous.
The vitreous is a clear, jelly-like substance that fills a large portion of your eyeball between the lens and the retina. Collagen fibers, a type of protein, allow the vitreous to attach to other structures inside your eye, including the retina, optic nerve, blood vessels, and macula.
The gel-like substance in the vitreous contains 99 percent water, along with a small percentage of collagen and hyaluronic acid.
Functions of the vitreous include:
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Eye floaters appear as gray or black specks, cobwebs, or strings that float around when your eyes move. If you try to look at them directly, they will dark away quickly.
Over time, the vitreous starts to liquefy (a process called syneresis) and shrink, causing some collagen fibers to break away and clump together. These clumps are not entirely transparent and cast shadows on your retina. The shadows are what you see as floaters.
Floaters are a normal part of the aging process, although younger people can experience them too.
Eye floaters can take on many forms. Some of these different shapes include:
You may notice the floaters more when looking at a white background or a blue sky. Most people find floaters annoying, but they rarely interfere with vision, unless the floater is large or dense.
Some people also see light flashes if the vitreous tugs on the retina. This symptom often occurs when the vitreous first starts to loosen and detach itself, which may or not cause further complications.
Although floaters are common, some people are more likely to get them. Some risk factors are:
Floaters are typically harmless and do not signal signs of vision loss. However, they can also be a sign of vision-threatening complications. It is essential to make an appointment with your ophthalmologist if the eye floaters get worse.
Some eye diseases and conditions associated with floaters include:
Other causes of eye floaters include:
If you have symptoms of light flashes, a sudden increase in floaters, shadows in your vision, or a curtain over your vision, see your eye doctor right away. These can be signs of a detached retina or retinal tear.
Your eye does not replenish the fluid in your vitreous, which is why most floaters do not go away. Even if your floaters are still present, you may start to notice them less because your brain learns to ignore them. Or, the floaters may settle out of your line of sight, so you do not see them as often.
Most patients leave their floaters alone if they are not bothered by them, and there are no complications. However, patients with floaters that obscure their vision or who have vision-threatening complications may require medical treatment.
If your floaters are very bothersome, there are treatment options available to get rid of your floaters. In general, most eye doctors recommend not treating floaters unless they significantly interfere with your vision.
Laser vitreolysis is a less invasive way to remove floaters. During the procedure, the eye surgeon:
Here are some things to consider with the laser vitreolysis procedure:
Pars plana vitrectomy is a type of eye surgery that treats a variety of conditions in the retina or vitreous, such as retinal detachments or vitreous hemorrhages. In cases of extreme floaters, a vitrectomy can remove them from your eye.
During a vitrectomy, the eye surgeon:
Here are some things to consider with the pars plana vitrectomy:
Eye floaters are usually nothing but an annoyance. They typically clear up on their own with time. However, if they don't clear up or start to impair your vision, make an eye exam appointment with your ophthalmologist. Worsening eye floaters or developing new floaters could be connected to an underlying condition.
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Kaiser, Peter K., and Neil J. Friedman. The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary Illustrated Manual of Ophthalmology. Saunders, Elsevier, 2009.
Kokavec, Jan, et al. “Biochemical Analysis of the Living Human Vitreous.” Clinical & Experimental Ophthalmology, vol. 44, no. 7, 2016, pp. 597–609., doi:10.1111/ceo.12732.
Sebag, J, et al. “Long-Term Safety and Efficacy of Limited Vitrectomy for Vision Degrading Vitreopathy Resulting from Vitreous Floaters.” Ophthalmology Retina, vol. 2, no. 9, Sept. 2018, pp. 881–887., doi:10.1016/j.oret.2018.03.011.
Shah, Chirag P., and Jeffrey S. Heier. “YAG Laser Vitreolysis vs Sham YAG Vitreolysis for Symptomatic Vitreous Floaters.” JAMA Ophthalmology, vol. 135, no. 9, Sept. 2017, pp. 918–923., doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2017.2388.