Eye floaters are those tiny spots, specks, flecks and “cobwebs” that drift aimlessly around in your field of vision. While annoying, ordinary eye floaters and spots are very common and usually aren’t cause for alarm.
Floaters and spots typically appear when tiny pieces of the eye’s gel-like vitreous break loose within the inner back portion of the eye.
When we are born and throughout our youth, the vitreous has a gel-like consistency. But as we age, the vitreous begins to dissolve and liquefy to create a watery center.
Some undissolved gel particles occasionally will float around in the more liquid center of the vitreous. These particles can take on many shapes and sizes to become what we refer to as “floaters.”
You’ll will notice that these specks never seem to stay still when you try to focus on them. Floaters and spots move when your eye moves, creating the impression that they are “drifting.”
When Are Eye Floaters and Flashes a Medical Emergency?
If you see a shower of floaters and spots, sometimes accompanied by light flashes, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Clumps occur when the vitreous gel begins to liquefy or shrink, usually with aging, and detaches from the retina.
For some people, floaters are clumpy; for others, they’re stringy. They may be light or dark. What you see is actually the shadows cast by clumps of vitreous gel when light shines past them onto the retina.
The sudden appearance of these symptoms could mean that the vitreous is pulling away from your retina or that the retina itself is becoming dislodged from the inner back of the eye that contains blood, nutrients and oxygen vital to healthy function. When the retina is torn, vitreous can invade the opening and push out the retina — leading to a detachment.
A study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009 found that sudden presence of eye floaters and flashes means that one in seven people with these symptoms will have a retinal tear or detachment.
And up to 50 percent of people with a retinal tear will have a subsequent detachment.
In cases of retinal tear or detachment, action must be taken as soon as possible so that an eye surgeon can reattach the retina and restore function before vision is lost permanently.
Posterior vitreous detachments (PVDs) are far more common than retinal detachments and often are not an emergency even when floaters appear suddenly. But some vitreous detachments also can damage the retina by tugging on it, leading to a tear or detachment.
Light flashes known as photopsia can occur when your retina receives non-visual (mechanical) stimulation, which can happen when it is being tugged, torn or detached.