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What are floaters?

Stare at a white wall for a few seconds. See any tiny bubble-shaped shadows or stringy things floating across your visual field? If so, you've got floaters—harmless bits of cellular debris swimming around in the vitreous part of the eye. They get more common with age and are nothing to worry about, typically—unless you suddenly see lots of them, along with vision loss, pain or sparks of light. If so, get yourself to a doctor as soon as possible to make sure you don't have retinal detachment or another serious eye condition.

If you have enough of them, it looks like you can see a planetarium in your line of vision. Though those little black dots can be disturbing the first time you notice them, floaters are actually harmless. They're little specks that float around the vitreous fluid in your eye and are usually caused by some form of trauma (like a car accident), or through a lifetime of optical wear and tear—lifting, straining and rubbing your eyes. If you see a sudden cascade of new floaters at once, however, get to your ophthalmologist as soon as possible.

YOU: The Owner's Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider's Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger

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YOU: The Owner's Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider's Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger

Between your full-length mirror and high-school biology class, you probably think you know a lot about the human body. While it's true that we live in an age when we're as obsessed with our bodies as...
Dr. Ivan A. Schwab, MD
Ophthalmologist (Eye Specialist)

Floaters are imperfections within the eye. They are collections of tiny fibers and cells that cast a shadow on the retina, especially when looking at a bright plain background—such as a bright blue sky. They tend to move gently on their own or with movements of the eye—hence the name, floaters. These can be annoying, and there is no good way to be rid of them.

You may sometimes see small specks or clouds moving in your field of vision. They are called floaters. You can often see them when looking at a plain background, like a blank wall or blue sky.

Floaters are actually tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous—the clear, gel-like fluid that fills the inside of the eye. The specks that you see are the shadows they cast on the retina—the layer of light-sensing cells lining the back of the eye. The retina converts light rays into signals that are sent through the optic nerve to the brain and recognized as images.

You should contact your ophthalmologist right away if you suddenly develop new floaters. These symptoms may indicate a torn retina, which could lead to retinal detachment.

Dr. Marian S. Macsai, MD
Ophthalmologist (Eye Specialist)

Floaters are clumps of cells floating around inside the eye that are caused by normal age-related processes. Learn more from Dr. Marian Macsai, MD, on behalf of NorthShore University HealthSystem about floaters.

People of all ages are disturbed by floaters in the eyes. They often appear as specks seen especially when looking at a light background. They literally “float” in and out of view. As one gets older, it is likely that these floaters will increase because of changes in the clear gel-like fluid called vitreous which fills the eye. Most floaters are not associated with serious eye disease, however, a sudden increase in the number of floaters may signal a torn or detached retina. A broken blood vessel in the eye can also produce a sudden increase in floaters with subsequent decreased vision. It is always wise to see an ophthalmologist to determine if floaters are harmless in the beginning or a more serious problem.

Curious about this common but pesky phenomenon? Here are some facts about floaters:

  • Floaters are caused by a slowly shrinking vitreous (a gel-like substance that helps maintain the eye's round shape).
  • Although they're annoying, floaters shouldn't interfere with vision.
  • Floaters may be more obvious when a person is looking at something bright, like a blue sky or a white wall or sheet of paper.
  • Floaters are more likely to occur if eyes have been injured or inflamed, or if a person is nearsighted, has diabetes or has had surgery for cataracts.
  • Some floaters will go away on their own in a few weeks or months. But once a person has them, it's pretty likely they'll return in some shape or form at some point.
  • A medical exam can examine floaters more closely and determine whether or not they're dangerous and a sign of something more serious, like a retinal tear or detachment. (Many times, the first sign of a tear or detachment is a sudden increase in the size and number of floaters, or the sudden appearance of light flashes or peripheral loss of vision.)
  • If floaters become too numerous and dense and seriously interfere with vision, they can be surgically removed (this is known as a vitrectomy, a procedure that removes floaters from the vitreous and replaces the fluid with a salt solution). There are some clinics that also treat floaters with a laser, but this treatment is more common in the United Kingdom, and its safety and effectiveness are not certain.

If the occasional cobweb, flying insect or squiggly line becomes bothersome, keep an eye on their frequency and intensity and get it checked out if there's a sudden or drastic change. Many times, moving the eyes can shift the fluid around and make the floaters settle for a while. Other times, the brain grows accustomed to the intrusion, and learns to ignore it.

This content originally appeared on HealthyWomen.org.

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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.