Updated on  January 30, 2023
5 min read

Photopsia - Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

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What is Photopsia?

Photopsia is a visual phenomenon that causes a person to see floaters, flashes, or flickering lights. These visual disturbances can affect one or both eyes.

It’s common to “see stars”—flashes of light caused by photopsia—every so often. These visual changes last only a few seconds and usually result from temporary pressure on your eye. Sneezing hard or rubbing your eyes can cause flashing lights to appear in your visual field.

When to Worry About Seeing Flashes or Floaters

Call your doctor immediately if you experience photopsia or other visual symptoms that don’t disappear after a few seconds.

Photopsia that appears suddenly and doesn’t go away may indicate an underlying condition that needs medical attention. 

Some causes of photopsia, such as age-related macular degeneration and retinal detachment, can lead to eventual vision loss without treatment.

Symptoms of Photopsia

Photopsia causes floaters, light flashes, and other abnormalities in the visual field. Floaters are specks and spots that are easier to see during the day. Flashes of light can appear in various forms and are usually more noticeable in the dark.

What Does Photopsia Look Like?

If you have photopsia, you may experience any of the following visual disturbances:

  • Flickering lights
  • Shimmering lights
  • Light flashes
  • Zig-zag lines or streaks (scintillating scotoma)
  • Pulsating, strobe-like lights
  • Floating dots or geometric shapes
  • Snow or static in the visual field (visual snow)

Photopsia is a common symptom that occurs with several eye and brain disorders. It’s not a condition by itself.

What Causes Photopsia?

Many conditions affecting the eyes and brain can trigger photopsia. The most common causes of this visual phenomenon include:

Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a gradual breakdown of the macula, the part of your eye that provides sharp central vision. It’s a common eye condition in people over age 50. 

Photopsia is one of the early symptoms of AMD. Other common symptoms include blurry vision and a loss of central vision.

Retinal Detachment

The retina is a light-sensitive tissue that lines the inner back wall of the eye. It sends messages to your brain so you can see.

Retinal detachment happens when the retina moves out of its normal position. When this occurs, retinal cells don’t get the oxygen and nutrients they need to do their job. 

Light flashes, floaters, and reduced vision can be early warning signs of retinal detachment. Without immediate treatment, a detached retina can cause permanent vision loss.

Retinal Tears

A retinal tear often leads to retinal detachment. Blurry vision and seeing flashes of light or floaters are common symptoms of retinal tears.

Posterior Vitreous Detachment

Vitreous is the gel-like substance inside your eye. Normally, the vitreous attaches to the retina. Posterior vitreous detachment (PVD) is when the vitreous separates from the retina.

Floaters and flashes of light in your peripheral vision are common symptoms of PVD. Sometimes, PVD leads to retinal tears and detachment.

Vertebrobasilar Insufficiency

Vertebrobasilar insufficiency (VBI) is poor blood flow to the back of your brain. Without oxygen and nutrients from blood, brain damage occurs.

The back of your brain processes visual information and coordinates movement. Brain damage in this area causes visual changes like photopsia and difficulty walking and balancing. 

Optic Neuritis

Optic neuritis is inflammation of the eye’s optic nerve. This nerve relays signals from the retina to the brain so you can see.

Inflammation damages the optic nerve and causes symptoms such as:

  • Eye pain
  • Blurry vision
  • Photopsia

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a common cause of optic nerve inflammation.

Ocular Migraine

Migraines are known for causing intense, throbbing headaches. Other symptoms that can occur with ocular migraines include visual changes called auras. A visual aura is a type of photopsia that can look like snow or static on a television screen.

Charles Bonnet Syndrome

Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS) is a condition that can affect people with full or partial vision loss. CBS causes visual hallucinations, such as repeating patterns of dots, lines, or geometric shapes.

Digitalis Toxicity

Digitalis, which includes the medications digitoxin or digoxin, is a medication that treats heart disease. Taking too much digitalis at once or over a long-term period can be toxic.

Photopsia is a common early symptom of digitalis toxicity, which can be life-threatening. Other symptoms of digitalis toxicity include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

How to Treat Photopsia

There’s no single treatment plan for photopsia. Your eye doctor will identify the condition that’s causing your visual symptoms. The type of treatment they recommend will depend on the underlying condition.

Photopsia is usually a symptom of a preexisting condition like age-related macular degeneration or optic neuritis. If you have a preexisting condition, photopsia can be a sign that it’s getting worse. 

Call your doctor to discuss your new symptoms, and they may change your treatment plan accordingly. Depending on the type and severity of your condition, photopsia may not be reversible.

Does Photopsia Go Away on Its Own?

Photopsia sometimes goes away without treatment, but this depends on the underlying cause. If your visual symptoms are from an ocular migraine or optic neuritis, they will likely resolve on their own.

Conditions like age-related macular degeneration and retinal detachment require professional treatment from an ophthalmologist. Without treatment, these eye conditions can lead to vision loss.

Summary

Photopsia encompasses many visual symptoms, including flashes of light, visual snow, and floaters. If you experience these symptoms, it may be a sign of an underlying condition affecting your eye or brain.

Visual changes like photopsia, blurry vision, and reduced vision can signify that a preexisting condition is worsening. 

Some conditions that cause photopsia can lead to permanent vision loss or death. Call your doctor anytime you experience sudden changes in vision.

Updated on  January 30, 2023
9 sources cited
Updated on  January 30, 2023
  1. Brown, GC, et al. “Photopsias: A Key to Diagnosis.” Ophthalmology, 2015.
  2. Bittner, AK, et al. “A Survey of Photopsias in Self-reported Retinitis Pigmentosa: Location of Photopsias is related to Disease Severity.” Retina, 2010.
  3. Bittner, AK, et al. “Photopsias are related in part to perceived stress and positive mood in retinitis pigmentosa.” Eye, 2012.
  4. Bittner, AK, et al. “Characteristics and Possible Visual Consequences of Photopsias as Vision Measures Are Reduced in Retinitis Pigmentosa.” Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, 2011.
  5. Al-Asadi, SZ. “Vitreous Floaters and Photopsia As Predictors of Vitreoretinal Pathology.” Basra Journal of Surgery, 2013.
  6. Oishi, A, et al. “Photopsia as a manifestation of digitalis toxicity.” Canadian Journal of Ophthalmology, 2006.
  7. Boyd, K. “What Is Optic Neuritis?” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2022.
  8. Porter, D. “What is a Posterior Vitreous Detachment?” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2022.
  9. Porter, D. “What Is Charles Bonnet Syndrome?” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2022.
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