I’m Starting to See Eye Flashes and Eye Floaters in My Vision. Should I See My Eye Care Doctor?

Eye floaters and flashes are very common. Flashes or flickers of light can stream into your visual field in split-second intervals, almost like someone is turning a light switch on and off.

Eye floaters can look like strands of fibers or cobwebs that occasionally float through your line of vision and move with your eye movement. Fortunately, both of these events are usually harmless, although annoying. However, sometimes these symptoms can mean a serious vision threat, especially if they happen suddenly and become more numerous.

What Causes Eye Floaters?

The vitreous is a clear, gel-like substance that fills 2/3 of the back of the eye and attaches to the front of the retina. As we age into our 40’s and 50’s, this vitreous starts to liquefy and shrink, which causes it to become stringy as cells break apart in the middle. These cells cast a shadow against the retina, which results in the appearance of dark strands moving around with eye movement (a floater). Sometimes, eye flashes can occur as the vitreous tugs on the retina behind it. Think of the retina as a piece of carpet that needs to stay flat and attached to the back wall of the eye. Anytime the retina moves slightly from the vitreous, pulling away due to the liquefaction process, you may see a small flash of light from the retina moving.

In the event the vitreous completely pulls away and separates from the retina, this would be termed a posterior vitreous detachment. An individual might see some flashes and possibly larger, stationary eye floaters that might appear in a certain area of vision. In the majority of vitreous detachment cases, the retina remains intact and secured to the back of the eye. Flashes of light go away and the larger floater typically subsides over time, sometimes taking several months to do so. Rarely, eye floaters from a vitreous detachment can remain over your central line of vision and disrupt clear vision for driving, reading and other activities that require frequent eye movement to move the floater out of the way.

Can Surgery Remove Eye Floaters?

Surgery to remove eye floaters is rarely recommended, since more vision complications can result from the actual surgery itself. However, in special circumstances, the procedure can be performed.

Sometimes eye flashes and floaters can represent a vision-threatening event that requires immediate attention and treatment, especially if they happen all of a sudden and become more prominent over time. In rare cases, the vitreous can pull away from the retina, but cause the retina to tear. This can lead to fluid seeping behind the retina, which further separates the retina from the tissue behind it that gives it nutrients. This event is termed a retinal detachment and can lead to permanent vision loss. Key warning signs of a possible retinal tear or detachment that require immediate examination by an eye care doctor are:

  • A new onset of eye flashes or floaters, especially an increase in eye floaters
  • Gradual shadowing/shading of vision, especially in one area—like a curtain being drawn across the vision
  • Rapid decrease in central vision. This may be caused by the macula (the area of the retina responsible for sharp central vision) detaching.

The Take Home Message

Although most eye flashes and eye floaters are typically normal and go away or become less prominent with time, it is always best to be evaluated by your eye care doctor. Undergoing an examination ensures nothing serious (like a retinal tear or retinal detachment) is occurring. Doing this helps prevent potential permanent vision loss and keeps your eyes healthy.

Dr. Vanessa Mills is now accepting new patients over the age of 10 for general eye exams. If you or your child are due for an eye exam and would like to schedule an appointment, we invite you to contact the Providence Eye & Laser Specialists office today.