Floaters: tiny particles in the eye

If you notice objects that look like squiggles, specks or tiny threads that seem to float across your vision when you move your eyes, you may have what are known as ‘floaters’.

Floaters are very common and are usually quite harmless. They tend to be especially noticeable when you look at a plain bright surface such as a piece of white paper or a blue sky. There are certain circumstances though, where floaters may indicate a more urgent problem.

What are floaters?

Floaters are tiny clumps of cellular debris suspended in the vitreous humour (the clear jelly-like fluid which fills most of the inside of the eye). Floaters can cause visual disturbances because they cast shadows on your retina.

eye

What causes floaters?

Floaters tend to be more common as we age. As you get older, the vitreous humour degenerates and partially liquefies, causing it to shrink and pull away from the retina. As a result of this shrinkage, the microscopic fibres within the vitreous humour can clump together, forming floaters.

When do floaters need to be seen by an eye specialist?

Most people have a few floaters, which generally don't require any treatment. However, if you notice a sudden increase in the number of floaters, sometimes like a shower of floaters going across your vision, or flashing lights or a black spot in your vision (called a scotoma) associated with the floaters you must seek medical attention urgently. These symptoms may indicate a retinal tear or retinal detachment, which if untreated, can lead to permanent loss of vision.

References

1. Sharma P,  Sridhar J ,  Mehta S. Flashes and Floaters. Prim Care.  2015 Sep;42(3):425-35. doi: 10.1016/j.pop.2015.05.011.
2. Milston R, Madigan MC, Sebag J. Vitreous floaters: Etiology, diagnostics, and management. Surv Ophthalmol. 2016 Mar-Apr;61(2):211-27. doi: 10.1016/j.survophthal.2015.11.008. Epub 2015 Dec 8. Review
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