Have you ever noticed small spots or strings float across your vision, or noticed a flash of light off to the side? Occasionally we can experience these visual phenomenon as a result of normal changing occurring within the eye. While they can be alarming, annoying, or distracting, they are typically harmless symptoms. However, in rare occurrences, flashes and floaters may be symptoms of a more serious ocular condition, such as a retinal tear or detachment. The best way to determine whether flashes or floaters are a benign symptom or a sign of a harmful condition is to visit your eye doctor, who can determine whether or not your ocular health is at risk.
What Causes Floaters?
When we notice strings, specks, dots, or cobwebs floating through our vision, they are usually what eye care professionals refer to as “floaters.” As we age, it is normal to gradual begin to notice a few new floaters in our vision. Ordinary floaters are the result of physiological changes to the gel substance inside the eye, which is known as the vitreous. The vitreous, which provides structure and protection within the eye, has a jelly-like texture early in life. As we age, the vitreous slowly begins to liquefy. However, not all areas of the vitreous change evenly, and clumps of the jelly-like structure remain. These clumps can cast a shadow on the back of the eye, creating the perception of a floater. When we think we see a new floater, it is typically a sign of further liquefaction of the vitreous inside the eye. For most people, floaters are simply a part of again. Many people find them distracting as they first appear, but eventually find them easier to ignore. No treatment is needed for floaters.
Posterior Vitreous Detachment
Flashes of light appearing in the periphery are another visual phenomenon that occurs due to changes within the eye. They are associated with a normal aging process known as a posterior vitreous detachment, or a PVD. Normally, the vitreous rests lightly on the back of the eye (the retina). Throughout the aging process, the vitreous begins to slowly pull away from the back lining of the eye, and may gently disrupt the retinal tissue in the process. When this slight disruption of the photoreceptors occurs, it may be perceived as a peripheral flash of light.
When are Flashes and Floaters Dangerous?
As we said, flashes or floaters are usually signs of normal aging processes occurring within the eye. In an overwhelming number of cases, these symptoms are completely benign and do not require treatment. However, in rare cases, a sudden onset of flashes of light or an increased number of floaters may indicate a retinal problem, such as a retinal hole, tear, or detachment. These cases have the potential to be sight-threatening, and need to be addressed by an eye care professional. If you are worried about a recent onset of flashes of light or floaters in your vision, it is best to schedule an appointment with your eye doctor. Through a thorough ocular health assessment, they can determine whether or not your ocular health is at risk.