Q: What are eye floaters, and are they dangerous?
By Sanjay Gupta, MD
Published May 12, 2015
A: Eye floaters are common and usually harmless. The National Eye Institute (NEI) describes them as “cobwebs,” spots, or strands that float around in your field of vision. They occur when the gel-like, vitreous substance that fills the eye begins to shrink and become stringy, casting a shadow onto the retina.
“Floaters are bits of debris in the interior of your eye that appear when you look at something white or very bright,” says Rishi Singh, MD, an optometrist at Cleveland Clinic’s Cole Eye Institute. “Most of the time, floaters are not the sign of anything dangerous. Floaters caused by loose cells, for example, are usually not that bothersome and often go away on their own in a few weeks or months.”
Floaters tend to become more common with age. According to the NEI, people who are very nearsighted, have diabetes, or who have had a cataract operation are at greater risk of developing them. If floaters suddenly become so dense that they disrupt your vision or if they are accompanied by other symptoms, you should consult a doctor.
“Unless the eye is carefully examined by a specialist, there is no way of knowing what the cause of the floaters is. That’s why it’s important for anyone who starts seeing floaters to schedule an appointment with their eye doctor,” Dr. Singh says. “If they’re suddenly onset or accompanied by flashes, make an appointment as soon as possible.”
Floaters accompanied by flashes of light or loss of peripheral vision could be a sign of retinal detachment, a serious condition that needs immediate attention.
“Sometimes the vitreous body fibers can pull some of the retinal nerve cells with them, causing a retinal tear that can lead to a retinal detachment,” Singh says. “This can cause significant damage to vision.” Other possible causes of floaters include blood leakages from tiny vessels in the retina, infections or inflammations of the eye, and, in rare instances, tumors.
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If the floaters are so severe that vision becomes impaired, your doctor may recommend surgery. Known as a vitrectomy, the procedure involves removal of the eye’s vitreous gel.
“An exam is necessary to determine the best treatment option,” Singh says. “In most cases, the floaters will not be a symptom of something more dangerous [but] more frequent eye exams may be recommended.”