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Are eye floaters ever serious?

Alan J. Margolis, MD
Ophthalmology

Floaters are a common symptom within the population.  The eye contains something called vitreous gel.  The vitreous fills the internal cavity of the eyeball and is attached to the retina peripherally, as well as around the optic nerve and at the macula.  As we age, the vitreous becomes more liquefied and less table.  In some people it may shrink and pull away from its attachments with the retina.  When this happens, it can tug on the retina and cause a tear in the retina.  Retinal tears may progress to retinal detachments and this can be associated with vision loss.  It is important for people to bring the presence of new floaters to their ophthalmologists attention.  In addition, symptoms such as flashes of light, or seeing a vein or curtain come over ones vision, would be other reasons for ophthalmologic evaluation.  Other causes of floaters can include bleeding into the eyeball cavity, or inflammation within the eye.  For this reason, whenever one sees new floaters, they should be brought to your ophthalmologists attention.

The retina can tear if the shrinking vitreous gel pulls away from the wall of the eye. This sometimes causes a small amount of bleeding in the eye that may appear as new floaters.
A torn retina is always a serious problem, since it can lead to a retinal detachment. You should see your ophthalmologist as soon as possible if:
  • Even one new floater appears suddenly
  • You see sudden flashes of light
If you notice other symptoms, like the loss of side vision, you should see your ophthalmologist.
 
Floaters may be normal. However, the sudden development of many new floaters or a significant change in your floaters can be a sign of another problem. Flashes of light may also accompany new floaters. Sudden and new symptoms should be evaluated by your eye doctor to determine if you have a retinal tear or detachment that might require immediate treatment to prevent vision loss. Some floaters come and go; others are visible for months or years. Most floaters will become less noticeable with time.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.