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Should you be worried about seeing floating spots?

Eye floaters are tiny spots, flecks, bubbles or threads in your vision. Ophthalmologist Dr Simon Chen explains what you should know.

Eye floaters are tiny spots or threads in your vision. As you look around, they follow your eye movements and drift through your field of vision, often with a slight delay. Floaters are particularly obvious when looking at a clear sky or a white wall. If you try to focus your vision on them, they may seem to move or float about.

Floaters come in various shapes and sizes. They can be big or small. They can look like dots, flecks, threads, cobwebs or even clear little bubbles. And it’s common to have several floaters of different shapes and sizes at the same time.

While they may be annoying, eye floaters are generally harmless. It is rare that an eye floater will significantly impair vision, and the majority of people can learn to live with them.

However, while floaters themselves are not harmful, they can be a sign of a more serious condition. If you’re experiencing floaters, it’s important to get your eyes checked.

“Floaters come in various shapes and sizes. They can be big or small. They can look like dots, flecks, threads, cobwebs or even clear little bubbles.”

What causes eye floaters?

Floaters are caused by shadows and are common with age.

To understand what an eye floater is, you need to know some basics about how the eye works. The lens is at the front of the eye and the retina is at the back of the eye. Light travels through the lens to the retina, where it is transmitted to the brain for processing into the image that you see.

Before the light gets to the retina, it has to travel through a transparent viscous fluid that sits between the two structures and fills the back of the eye – this fluid is called the vitreous humour.

The vitreous humour is a jelly-like substance, made up mostly of water along with small amounts of salts, sugars, collagen and proteins. Once we reach adulthood, formation of the vitreous is complete. It then starts to degenerate with age, and its consistency becomes less gelatinous and more liquid.

The collagen fibres within the vitreous humour also begin to clump together and can float freely in the now-watery surroundings. When light enters the eye, these clumps get in the way and cast shadows onto the retina. These shadows are the floaters that you see in your vision.

Both the thinning of the vitreous and the clumping of collagen fibres are a natural part of ageing, so it’s more common for older people to get floaters. Many people experience eye floaters after the age of 40.

Should you get eye floaters checked?

Although eye floaters are generally nothing to worry about, it’s very important that you have your eyes checked to rule out serious conditions such as a retinal tear or detachment.

In particular, seek attention if you experience:

  • A sudden increase in the number of eye floaters. This can indicate the development of a posterior vitreous detachment (also called a PVD), where the vitreous humour separates from the retinal tissue.
  • Sudden flashes of light along with eye floaters. This is even more concerning because it may indicate retinal damage, such as the retinal tissue tearing or detaching from the wall of the eye. Damage to the retina can lead to permanent blindness.

As a first step, have your eyes checked by an optometrist. They will refer you to an ophthalmologist who specialises in retinal conditions if necessary.

Can you treat eye floaters?

If you’ve had your eyes checked and it’s been determined that your floaters are harmless, whether or not you decide to have them treated comes down to personal preference. Most people learn to live with floaters, and they become less noticeable over time.

However, if floaters are affecting your quality of life, they can be effectively treated with lasers or surgery. Your ophthalmologist will talk you through your options, and help you weigh up the benefits and risks of treatment.

Learn more at Vision Eye Institute.

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