Eye floaters are small specks, threads or 'cobwebs' which appear in a person's vision. Many people think these tiny phenomena are dust or other particles and try to rub them away. You can't however, simply rub eye floaters away.
Floaters are fairly common and almost everyone will develop them at some point in their life. Fortunately they are generally harmless. However to 5% or so of people who have floaters, they seriously affect their quality of life. Floaters can usually be seen by an eye doctor during examination of the eye.
What are Floaters?
Floaters are tiny bits of membrane within the eye's transparent vitreous humor. This fluid fills the space between the lens of the eye and the retina. Floaters are deposits which can be any size, shape or consistency. They can be structures of protein or other cell debris in the eye's vitreous humor. When light enters the pupil, they cast a shadow onto the back of the eye, the retina, and show as specks on anything the person looks at, especially a well light background like a compute screen or a clear blue sky.
Floaters may be singular, or there may be several within the field of vision. They appear as spots, threads, lines or even loops, a bit like a spot on a camera lens creates spots on each photograph. Floaters are not stationary either, as their name suggests, they float around in the liquid of the eye. Although they sound to be very distracting, often sufferers do not even know they are there. They can generally only be seen when the person is looking at a blank surface or a neutral colored background such as a white wall or the blue sky. Sometimes they can be seen even when they eyes are closed, if the light is particularly bright.
Who May Suffer from Floaters?
Floaters are common in older people, and most of us will suffer from them, probably without even knowing it, at some time in our lives. Young people can also suffer from floaters, especially if they are near or short-sighted.
Those who have nearsightedness or diabetics seem to be more prone to developing floaters. Floaters are also common after cataract operations, and after trauma. Occasionally floaters may be congenital and present even at birth.
What Causes Floaters?
The most common cause of floaters is the shrinking of the vitreous humor, or clear liquid in the eye. This humor is 99% water and 1% collagen and hyaluronic acid. The collagen breaks down into fibrils or strings which are the floaters seen in the eye. These type of floaters tend to be linear and few in number.
As we age the vitreous body contracts or shrinks leading to what is known as a Posterior Vitreous Detachment as the fine fibers pull away from the retina. The shrinking vitreous may stimulate the retina mechanically, causing brief flashes within the eye called 'flashers'. The release of vitreous around the optic nerve may cause ring-shaped floaters to appear. These are known as 'Weiss Rings'. A Posterior Vitreous Detachment is a common occurrence that will occur once in each eye for anyone that reaches the age between 50-60 and up. In fact, 75% of people have experienced a Posterior Vitreous Detachment by the age of 65.
More seriously, the retina may become detached, leaking blood into the clear vitreous humor. This appears suddenly as a series of tiny dots moving across the vision of the patient. Retinal detachments can cause loss of vision and should be treated as a medical emergency.
Tears in the retina or those suffering with posterior uveitis (inflammation) may also have red or white blood cells leak into the vitreous humor. These will also appear as floaters in the patient's line of vision.
When Should an Eye Doctor be Consulted?
There are times when eye floaters may suggest a more serious disease. If you routinely see specks in front of your eyes that obscure your vision even when you are not looking at a light background, you should consult with an eye care professional.
Signs and symptoms that eye floaters may result from a more serious condition include:
- Sudden increase in the number of floaters.
- Sudden appearance of many small floaters moving across the field of vision
- Floaters that routinely obscure your vision.
- Floaters accompanied by flashes of light, spots or dizziness.
- Floaters that do not go away.
Sometimes floaters are an early sign of retinal detachment. This is a serious condition where the retina detaches from the eye and may result in permanent vision loss.
Other times floaters result from damage to the retina. If your eye is injured suddenly you may experience floaters temporarily.
Do Floaters Disappear?
If the floaters are not caused by inflammation and merely due to aging, unfortunately once the floaters have appeared in the eye, they are there forever. For most people they do not cause a problem as they are rarely seen, but severe cases can be a nuisance and a distraction, particularly when reading or driving.
What Treatment is Available for Floaters?
Normally floaters do not affect a person's quality of sight sufficiently for any treatment to be required and no treatment is generally recommended. In rare cases laser treatment is an option. This is described in more detail in the article on Eye Floater Treatment.
Some people actually enjoy their floaters. If you are bored and looking for something to do, consider looking up at a clear sky and trying to "move" your floaters or count the number of floaters that pass across your eye. Most people will be able to detect at least a few, even if they never noticed they had them before!
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