Floaters and Flashes

Table of Contents

Floaters and Flashes

Floaters are small specks, dots, lines or cobwebs that many people see moving in their field of vision. They are caused by small clumps of hardened jelly in the vitreous, the normally clear jelly-like material inside the eye. They are usually part of the aging process and are particularly common in nearsighted people and after cataract surgery. Floaters may be annoying but are usually of little significance.

Flashes resemble lightning bolts or camera flashes. They are sudden quick bursts of light in one eye at a time. Sometimes they are of little significance, but if you experience occasional flashes you should monitor your vision for any additional symptoms – floaters, vision loss or vision changes. If they are more than “occasional” they should be checked out by us promptly.

As we age, the vitreous jelly sometimes pulls or tugs on the retina (the seeing membrane inside the eye). When this jelly pulls away from the retina it is called “vitreous detachment” and it may be associated with sudden appearance of large number of floaters and/or flashes. Unlike “retinal detachment” which may result in blindness, vitreous detachment is usually harmless and needs no treatment. However, since initial symptoms are similar and retinal detachment sometimes follows vitreous detachment you should be checked promptly if you experience a sudden onset of floaters and/or flashes.

When should you suspect retinal detachment?

If several new floaters appear suddenly in one eye and/or you experience significant flashes in that eye, you won’t be able to tell if you are having vitreous detachment or an early retinal detachment. You should contact us as soon as possible. If you see dark shadows in your field of vision, or if lose your vision, you must contact us promptly because of the probability of retinal detachment. When you call, explain your problem to the receptionist. She should arrange for you to see us on the same day. If we are not available, contact another ophthalmologist or the Detroit Medical Center (1-313-745-5111, Kresge Eye Institute at Hutzel/Harper Hospital Urgent Center) and ask for the eye doctor on call. You need to be seen without delay.