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What is a Floater and Should I Be Concerned?

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background blur bokeh bright 220067The term “floater” refers to deposits found in the vitreous body of the eye, which is the gel-like material inside the eyeball. The vitreous may liquefy and bunch together to form tiny strings or balls. Floaters may look like specks, lines, cobwebs or spots, floating into your vision when looking at a blank surface. They shift as the eyes do, though they do not follow this movement exactly and may still drift, particularly when the eyes are still. For most individuals, eye floaters are a minor inconvenience and are not much of a cause for concern, but in rare cases patients find they cause significant disruption to their vision.

The vitreous of the eye is clear, which allows light to enter the retina easily, resulting in vision. Moving the head while experiencing eye floaters causes the bunched pieces to move and sometimes cast a shadow on the retina, which explains why eye floaters occasionally affect vision.

Eye floaters can occur at random in one or both eyes, and the density and pattern may vary within each eye as well as overtime. Unfortunately, eye floaters do not disappear completely once noticed, but they can settle out of the patient's field of vision. Alternatively, the patient can adapt to their presence, and their brain will thus begin to filter them out. Eye floater patterns differ among patients as some may only see one or two, whereas others can see hundreds. An increase of floaters accompanied by flashes of light is a medical emergency and should receive medical attention immediately.

The major reason patients experience eye floaters is old age. As individuals age, the vitreous around the eye gradually liquefies in a process called syneresis. These often come in pockets, which are what patients often notice as eye floaters, within the regular gel-like nature of the vitreous.

Posterior vitreous detachment, another condition causing eye floaters in old age, occurs when the collagen fibers start to condense and cause the vitreous to pull away from the back of the eye. This is considered normal as patients age, but may result in a retinal tear or complete detachment.

Patients who have diabetes are at a higher risk of retinopathy, where the capillaries in their retinas become leaky and allow the blood and its contents into the retina, resulting in swelling. Diabetic retinopathy puts individuals at a higher risk for eye floaters because of the stress placed on their retinas and the potential for hemorrhage. Cellular material such as red blood cells or white blood cells due to hemorrhage and inflammation can cause floaters. Hemorrhages may occur as a result of diabetic retinopathy, injury, eye surgery, or retinal tear through a blood vessel.

Nearsightedness or myopia causes the patient's eyes to lengthen, resulting in more changes to the vitreous. Ultimately, this increases the patient’s risk of developing eye floaters, and often the number of floaters they experience as well. Nearsightedness can be quite frustrating for individuals to deal with, but thankfully there are quite a few ways this condition can be managed, such as wearing glasses or contact lenses. There are also techniques now available at Eye Vision Associates to control the progression of myopia and therefore lessen the visual consequences associated with it. While the vitreous of the eye can still change, treating nearsightedness as early and as effectively as possible can help reduce the patient's risk of developing eye floaters.

Various eye infections and injuries to the eye can also increase an individual's risk of developing eye floaters. Eye injuries and infections can cause swelling, negative impacts on vision, pressure on certain portions of the eye, and more. Any or even all of these can make eye floaters appear in the eye, even if it turns out to be a temporary reaction, such as blinking away spots in vision after looking directly at bright lights for a short period.

Uveitis is a condition in which the middle layer of the eye, called the uvea, swells. The uvea is responsible for supplying blood to the retina, which is the part of the eye that views images and send them to the brain. This condition can be the result of both infectious causes as well as non-infectious ones. In many instances, the cause of uveitis is unknown and occurs in healthy adults, but it can also occur due to autoimmune disorders, serious infections, toxin exposure, or trauma to the eye. Aside from eye floaters, other symptoms of uveitis include pain, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, and severe redness in the eye.

As its name suggests, retinal detachment is a condition where the retina detaches from the back of the eye. The result of this happening is a loss of vision. This loss of vision can be either total or partial, depending on the extent of the detachment. It is crucial to note the cells of the retina may be severely deprived of oxygen when it is detached from the rest of the eye. It is largely because of this, and if patients experience sudden changes in vision, that retinal detachment is considered a medical emergency.

One of the sudden and severe changes in vision to watch for when it comes to retinal detachment is eye floaters. When retinal detachment is the cause, eye floaters will appear suddenly and in great numbers.

An individual who has bleeding in the eye can see eye floaters. Bleeding or hemorrhage into the vitreous can be caused by many factors including eye injury, brain bleed, obstructed blood vessels in the eye, diabetic retinopathy, posterior vitreous detachment, and sickle cell disease. If there is blood inside someone’s eye, it blocks the normal transmission of light to the retina and the result is the appearance of eye floaters.

Routine eye examinations with the doctors at Eye Vision Associates are encouraged to detect and diagnose various eye conditions during their early stages, which can help prevent complications such as eye floaters from occurring in the first place. Of course, sometimes eye floaters are one of the first symptoms of many eye conditions, including uveitis. If this is the case, routine eye exams can still catch eye floaters and help the doctor diagnose the underlying problem before it causes issues with your vision. In all instances, though, routine eye examinations are necessary for promoting eye health and handling eye floaters in all forms.


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updated Feb. 16, 2023
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