What Are Eye Floaters?
11 March 2019
Eye floaters are fragments of protein called collagen that form in the vitreous humour (gel-like part of the eye that keeps it in shape) and appear to float around in the line of vision.
They are frequently described as specs, spots, dots, strands, strings or ‘cobwebs’ that drift and glide around in eye. Eye floaters tend to dart away when you try to focus on them.
They are usually nothing to worry about. Many people don’t even notice floaters because their brain has learnt to ignore them over time. In rare cases however, eye floaters can be so severe that they significantly disrupt quality of vision. In these cases, treatment will be offered.
In this article we explore:
- The signs and symptoms of eye floaters
- The causes of eye floaters
- Floaters after cataract surgery
- Treatment for eye floaters
Signs and symptoms of eye floaters
Eye floaters appear in the line of vision as:
- Dark dots
- Wavy lines
- Threadlike strands
Eye floaters generally appear when focusing on something bright or looking up at the sky in daylight. It’s common for these floaters to be accompanied by flashes.
Although eye floaters are usually harmless, they can indicate problems within the eye and therefore an eye examination is recommended.
Urgent medical assistance is required if floaters or flashes appear suddenly, increase in quantity, cause blurry vision, cause eye pain or appear after an eye injury.
What causes eye floaters?
With age the protein particles that make up the vitreous humour gradually shrink down into small pieces. These pieces clump together; creating shadows on the retina and in turn causing eye floaters to appear in the line of vision.
This can happen at any age, but typically occurs in eyes aged 50 and above. You’re also more likely to experience eye floaters if you are near-sighted, have had cataract surgery or had an eye injury.
Here are the four main causes of eye floaters:
Posterior Vitreous Detachment (PVD)
Floaters are a common indication of PVD; a condition that occurs in around 75% of people aged 65 and over. This is because the vitreous humour (gel-like substance within the eye) naturally changes over time.
As the eye ages, the vitreous humour starts to shrink. The humour can then become detached from the retina (light sensitive layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye). As it comes away from the retina symptoms of Posterior Vitreous Detachment are experienced.
Flashes of light, dots and cobwebs are the most common indicators and usually settle down over time.
Despite what many believe, PVD does not cause pain or permanent vision loss. Many people in fact are not aware that they have developed PVD.
Although rare, in some cases of PVD, the vitreous humour will start to pull on the retina; causing small tears and blood vessels to burst.
These blood vessels then bleed into the vitreous humour, creating the appearance of eye floaters. The floaters usually gradually disappear as the blood is re-absorbed back into the retina.
Advice from an Optometrist should be sought after as soon as possible if eye floaters suddenly appear. Retinal tears can lead to retinal detachment, which can result in visual impairment or in extreme cases complete vision loss.
Retinal tears can be treated with injections, eye drops or surgery.
Affecting around 1 in every 10,000 people each year, retinal detachment happens when the retina completely separates itself from the back of the eye.
The retina is responsible for transmitting images to the brain via the optical nerve. If this process is disturbed the brain will receive patchy or blank images.
It’s very rare that eye floaters indicate a retinal detachment; however if a large amount is experienced, the eyes should be examined.
If you experience a high number of eye floaters, bright flashing lights or any loss of vision, contact an optician immediately.
You'll be referred to hospital for surgery if a retinal detachment occurs.
As with several other visual impairments, age plays a part in the root cause of eye floaters. They will usually appear in people aged 40 and above.
As the eye ages the vitreous humour becomes softer, causing particles of collagen to become more visible. Due to light traveling through the vitreous humour before it reaches the retina, these particles create shadows. These shadows are then transmitted to the brain through the optic nerve as eye floaters (dots, specs, strands, cobwebs).
Floaters after cataract surgery
There is a correlation between eye floaters and Lens Replacement Surgery, also known as cataract surgery.
Floaters after cataract surgery may become prevalent simply because the patient was not able to see them before the procedure- due to the cataract impairing vision. The procedure itself does not cause floaters to appear.
Is there a treatment for eye floaters?
If your vision is affected by any of the symptoms mentioned within this article, it’s a good idea to book an eye examination with an optometrist, as soon as possible.
In most cases, there is no serious cause for eye floaters and no treatment will be needed.
If however, if eye floaters affect vision and quality of life severely, a procedure called laser vitreolysis may be recommended.
Laser vitreolysis is similar to laser eye surgery. It involves the application of pulses of light that convert the collagen and hyaluronic molecules (eye floaters) into a gas. The floaters will then either be completely removed or reduced to a size that no longer hinders vision.
The treatment itself takes roughly 30 minutes to perform and most patients will need two or three sessions to achieve their desired outcome. Local anaesthetic will be administered for optimum comfort during the procedure.
Our specialist team advise that eye floaters are usually nothing to worry about and that the symptoms will settle down on their own.
However, if you are concerned about eye floaters and cannot get hold of your optometrist or doctor, call 111 for immediate medical advice.
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