What are floaters?

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.

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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.

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. 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.

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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.