Most of us have seen strange shapes floating in our vision from time to time and those tiny spots, specks and flecks that drift aimlessly around our field of vision are otherwise known as floaters.
What are floaters?
Floaters are caused by small piece of debris that float in the vitreous humour of the eye. The vitreous humour is a clear, jelly-like substance that helps maintain the eye's shape. Debris within the vitreous humour casts a shadow on the retina at the back of the eye, and appears to 'float' in your field of vision. So while these objects look like they are in front of your eye, they are actually floating inside it.
Floaters can appear in a variety of shapes and sizes such as:
- Black dots
- Threads or strings
Why do you get floaters?
As you age, the protein fibers that make up the vitreous shrink down to little shreds that clump together, and this causes the floaters on your retina. These changes can happen at any age, but usually occur between 50 and 75. They are also more visible if you gaze at a clear or overcast sky or a computer screen with a white or light-colored background. These specks never seem to stay still when you try to focus on them. Floaters and spots move when your eye and the vitreous gel inside the eye moves, creating the impression that they are "floating."
Are they a concern?
Ordinarily, they are very common and usually aren't cause for concern. In fact, according to Harvard health, about one quarter of people have some vitreous shrinkage with floaters by their 60s, and two thirds of people develop them by the time they are 80 years old.
In most cases, floaters do not cause major problems and do not require treatment. After a while, your brain learns to ignore them and you may not even notice them. If a floater appears in your direct line of vision, moving your eye up and down may help. This causes the vitreous humour in your eye to move around, which can shift the floater elsewhere.
Floaters can also be a symptom of retinal tears. By the time half of people reach 50, the vitreous humour has separated from the retina. Generally, this is normal – but sometimes it can pull on the retina, causing blood vessels within it to burst. This is what is called a retinal tear. Floaters are not always a sign of a retinal tear, but if you suspect you may have one you need to make an appointment with an eye doctor. Having a retinal tear puts you at risk of retinal detachment, which is when the retina detaches from the rest of your eye and this can cause blindness. However this is extremely rare – Only one in every 10,000 people will develop it in any given year in the UK.
You should always mention any vision changes or eye problems, whether floaters or something else, to your optician during your regular examinations. Floaters are occasionally only visible during eye examinations, especially if they are close to your retina.
Floaters and laser eye surgery
Although most patients don’t experience side effects from laser eye surgery, in some cases floaters may appear or increase. This seems to happen mainly for patients with very high shortsightedness (myopia). Not only that, patients are likely to pay much more attention to their vision after surgery and may become more aware of the natural presence of floater. However the awareness of them will decrease and are rarely a long term issue.
For more on eye health,