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Flashes and Floaters - Posterior Vitreous Detachments

What are floaters?

“Floaters” is the term used to describe the symptom of seeing small lines or dots that move. Floaters are tiny clumps of the vitreous gel, the fluid that fills the inside of the eye. As the eye moves, these floaters also move within the eye, casting shadows onto the retina. Typically they are most noticeable when looking at a plain background such as a white wall or a bright blue sky.

What causes flashes and floaters?

The vitreous is a jelly-like liquid that fills the inside of your eye. Over many years, the vitreous gel becomes more condensed, forming tiny clumps and strands. Eventually, the vitreous becomes so condensed that it will pull inward and separate away from the retina which lines the inside of the eye. This is known as a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). It should be emphasized that PVD is a natural process that will happen to most people at some point in their lives. While PVD can occur at any age, it is more common after age 50. It may occur at a younger age among nearsighted people, people who have had eye injuries, or those who have recently undergone an eye surgery.

Usually, when a PVD occurs it will cause the sudden appearance of numerous dots, lines, or cobwebs in one eye. Flashes may also occur during a PVD as the vitreous pulls away from the retina surface as it separates. This often can be observed as a shooting arc of light, or a burst of light in the corner of your vision.

Are flashes and floaters ever serious?

Occasionally, the retina can be torn when as the vitreous gel is pulling away. A retinal tear is serious, in that it can cause the retina to begin to fall out of position like wet wallpaper falling off of a wall, which is called a retinal detachment. If caught early, a retinal tear can be treated and the risk of the potentially serious complication of a retinal detachment can be markedly reduced. As the symptoms of a PVD and retinal tear are identical, any sudden onset of new flashes or floaters should be promptly evaluated.

Can anything be done about floaters?

Floaters can often interfere with normal vision and be bothersome while reading or driving. Fortunately, most floaters are harmless and become much less noticeable over time, although this may take several months.

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