Eye Floaters: Should You Be Worried?
Have you ever looked at the bright blue sky and noticed tiny spots in front of your eyes? Or, perhaps you’ve looked at a white piece of paper and noticed small squiggles moving across your vision. Maybe when you look at your computer screen, your vision seems to swim with little specks and flecks.
If a particularly large cobweb drifts past your eyes, it can seem alarming at first-it’s clouding your vision, after all! Don’t worry-eye floaters are usually harmless.
Here’s everything you need to know about eye floaters.
What Are Eye Floaters?
Eye floaters are tiny specks, flecks, dots, squiggles, and cobwebs that drift about your vision whenever your eyes move. They consist of protein and other discarded cell material that clump together in your eye’s vitreous, the gel-like mass that fills the space between the lens and the retina of the eye. In certain lighting conditions, these larger clumps cast tiny shadows.
Eye floaters are slightly darker than what you see in the background of your surroundings, and they cannot be seen if you close your eyes or if you are in the dark.
Are Eye Floaters Dangerous?
Eye floaters may be annoying, but they are benign. Many people learn to ignore eye floaters for the majority of their lives. In some cases, eye floaters gradually disappear on their own.
As we age, the vitreous begins to dissolve and liquefy, which may lead to an increase in eye floaters. It is unusual for anyone under 16 years old to notice eye floaters, but in most cases, it is not something to worry about. Some nearsighted (myopic) individuals notice eye floaters earlier in life.
However, while eye floaters themselves are not dangerous, they can be a sign of more serious eye conditions.
Serious Conditions Associated with Eye Floaters
Eye floaters are a symptom, not a cause of more dangerous conditions. In most cases, treating the condition will reduce eye floaters. The following conditions may cause an increase in eye floaters.
- Diabetic Retinopathy – A complication of diabetes, diabetic retinopathy involves damage to the blood vessels and tissue at the back of the eye. These blood vessels grow along the vitreous and pull on the retina. In some cases, diabetic retinopathy can cause a vitreous hemorrhage, which causes string-like floaters to worsen.
- Retinal Tears and Detachment – As we age, the vitreous gel thickens and starts to shrink. This makes it pull away from the retina, and as it peels away, the retina can tear or even detach. Debris from the detachment drifts into the vitreous and becomes eye floaters.
- Tuberculosis – This is a rare condition in the United States, though it is common in developing countries. Tuberculosis causes a variety of symptoms, including blurry vision, light sensitivity, eye irritation, floaters, or flashes.
- Sarcoidosis – This inflammatory disease can affect a variety of organs, including the eye. Essentially, this condition triggers heightened immunity, which overreacts and damages the body’s own tissues. Sarcoidosis causes the formation of microscopic clumps which can interfere with organ function. If sarcoidosis affects the eye, it can cause dry eyes, burning, blurred vision, and floaters.
- Syphilis – Syphilis is a sexually-transmitted infection. If left untreated, the disease can cause significant damage to any major organ of the body, including the eye. Syphilis can trigger retinitis (inflammation of the retina) and floaters.
Many of these conditions are treatable if diagnosed early. Consequently, it’s important to regularly check up with your eye doctor to ensure your eyes stay healthy. Semi-annual checkups should be enough for your doctor to spot any potential problems or changes in your eye health.
On the other hand, if eye floaters become more bothersome, then you may need to seek medical attention sooner.
When to Seek Medical Attention
A few eye floaters here and there are nothing to worry about, especially if they don’t change over time. However, you should seek medical help if you experience any of the following:
- Sudden increase in eye floaters
- Flashes of light or vision loss accompanying floaters
- Eye pain along with floaters
- Increase in eye floaters after eye surgery or trauma
Treating Eye Floaters
Assuming you have no serious medical conditions, then eye floaters don’t require treatment.
Only in rare cases do floaters become so dense that they negatively affect vision. In extreme cases like these, a doctor may recommend a vitrectomy, a surgery that removes the vitreous gel (along with the floating debris) from the eye. Keep in mind that a vitrectomy comes with a number of risks and complications, including new floaters in your field of vision.
If you’re worried about eye floaters, don’t be afraid to talk to your eye doctor about your concerns. He or she can closely examine your eyes for any undiagnosed conditions. If necessary, your eye doctor may recommend that you visit a specialist for further treatment.