Common Eye Symptoms

Flashes and Floaters

Flashes and floaters are specks, squiggles or bright spots in your field of vision. They normally come and go quickly. They are common, can occur at any age, and in most cases, they’re usually harmless.

Flashes look like flashing lights or streaks of lightning. You may not be able to tell in which eye the flashes occur. 

Floaters can look like little bugs, threads or cobwebs that move when you try to look at them and are more noticeable in bright light.

What causes flashes and floaters?

Flashes and floaters usually result from changes in the vitreous. The vitreous is the gel-like substance that fills about 80 percent of the eye and helps it maintain a round shape. The vitreous contains millions of fine fibres that are attached to the surface of the retina. As we age, the vitreous slowly shrinks and pulls away from the retinal surface and can form clumps. These clumps appear as floaters and move across your vision.

As you get older, you may suddenly see a large floater. As a normal part of ageing the vitreous gets more watery like a bad batch of jelly and begins to separate from the retina. After separating, the vitreous may move forward and float in the middle of the eyeball, which can cause a large floater, sometimes large enough to obscure vision. This process is called a posterior vitreous detachment.

Sometimes flashes may occur in your peripheral (side) vision. They occur when part of the retina is tugged or torn by the vitreous separating. If a retinal tear forms, it can lead to a retinal detachment. Retinal detachment can lead to severe loss of vision and is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment.

How would my symptoms be investigated?

You will be screened to check your vision, intraocular pressure (pressure inside your eye) and history of symptoms. Your eyes need to be dilated with eye drops so that your treating Ophthalmologist may assess the vitreous and retina. Your Ophthalmologist may request for an OPTOS photo to be performed. This is a wide-angle colour photo of your retina to look for any areas of weakness or tugging at the edges of the retina.

How are they treated?

Most floaters and flashes do not require any treatment. However, sometimes flashes and floaters are a symptom of a tear in the retina. Retinal tears can be serious and may need laser treatment to prevent the tear from progressing. Without treatment, fluid can leak through the tear and can cause the retina to detach. Retinal detachment may require surgery.

When should I be concerned about my flashes or floaters?

You should contact your eye doctor as soon as possible if:

  • You have a sudden onset of new flashes/floaters
  • Existing floaters suddenly increase in size or number
  • A shadow developing in your peripheral vision
  • Blurring of your vision

These may be a sign of a retinal detachment so contact your eye doctor as soon as possible.

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