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Floaters and Flashes

What is a floater?

Floaters are extremely small strands or clusters of cells or gel floating in the vitreous – the clear, gel-like fluid that fills the inside of your eye. They may appear in a variety of shapes: specks, dots, circles, lines, wavy threads, clouds or cobwebs.

Where do floaters come from?

When people reach middle age, the vitreous gel may start to shrink or thicken. This process may cause clumps and strands to form in the vitreous gel. Vitreous floaters cast shadows on the retina, the part of the eye that functions like film in a camera. They are seen as flying or moving objects in front of the eyes.

Are some people more likely than others to have floaters?

Yes. Vitreous floaters become more common in individuals over 40. Regardless of age, floaters occur more often in people who are nearsighted, people who have had inflammation inside an eye, people that have had cataract surgery and people who have had YAG laser eye surgery.

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Are floaters a serious problem?

Yes and no. Most floaters are harmless and will fade as time passes. However, it is very important to understand that floaters may be a symptom of a serious problem – a torn or detached retina. When the vitreous gel pulls away from the retina, a tear may result. A torn retina can deteriorate into a detached retina. The floaters you see may be a small amount of blood. An examination by an ophthalmologist will determine whether the floater are harmless or a sign of a serious problem.

Should my eyes be examined every time I see a floater?

You should see your ophthalmologist when you see a new floater or when you see sudden flashes of light, experience blurry vision or lose side vision.

What does it mean if I’m seeing flashing lights?

When the vitreous gel rubs or pulls on the retina, you may see what appear to be flashes and streaks of light. If you’ve ever seen stars after hitting your eye, you’ve experienced flashing lights or streaks.

The changing shape of the vitreous gel is a natural occurrence of aging. As we grow older, the vitreous gel pulls away from the retina causing a vitreous detachment commonly associated with flashes and floaters. Flashes or floaters may last for weeks. If there is a new onset of light flashes, an examination by an ophthalmologist will help determine if there is a torn retina associated with flashes or floaters.

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Can floaters and flashes be removed?

When floaters or flashes of light are symptoms of a torn or detached retina, laser and retinal surgery are required to correct the condition. Other floaters and flashes are harmless. No treatment is required. They generally become less noticeable over time.

What does it mean if I have headaches after I see light flashes?

Some people experience jagged lines or heat waves in both eyes lasting 10 to 20 minutes. These flashes are usually caused by spasms of blood vessels in the brain known as a migraine. If a headache follows the light flashes, it’s referred to as a migraine headache. If the jagged lines or heat waves occur without a headache, the light flashes are referred to as an ophthalmic migraine. Whichever condition occurs, an examination is necessary to determine the source and severity of any light flashes, lightning streaks, jagged lines or heat waves. Further evaluation of an individual’s migraines by a neurologist is recommended.

What can I expect during an office visit for floaters or light flashes?

Patients receive a comprehensive, painless eye examination with special attention focused on the vitreous gel and the retina. Their pupils will be dilated with drops possibly requiring arrangements for a driver. Following the examination, I will discuss the patient’s condition and review all treatment options. Most importantly, I will take whatever time the patient needs for me to answer their questions and feel comfortable with our treatment plan.

This is the essence of Personalized Eye Care.

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