Eye floaters appear as dark spots, threads or clumps that move (or float about – hence the name) as you move your eye. They are very common, especially in older people.
If you try to look directly at a floater it may seem to disappear from your sight. They tend to become easier to see though if you look at a light background – such as a white wall or the sky.
How do they occur and how harmful are they?
Floaters occur in the vitreous humor of the eye. This is a jelly-like substance that contributes to giving your eye its round shape. It is made up of 98% water with the rest being collagen and hyaluronic acid.
As we age, this substance loses water and shrinks, which can lead to clumps of protein (which appear as floaters) being suspended within it.
Floaters are often harmless, but it depends on the cause or underlying condition.
If the cause is a shrinkage of the vitreous as explained above, the odd floater is usually of no concern. This type of floater is more common in people over the age of 50 (although it can occur at any age), or in people with shortsightedness or who have had cataract surgery. While it can be annoying to have floaters like this, many people find they become less noticeable over time as they adapt to them.
There are some instances though where floaters can signify a serious condition or even a medical emergency.
For example, inflammation of the eye can cause floaters, and is often associated with an eye infection or an autoimmune condition.
Another situation is where there is a sudden increase in the number of floaters. This may indicate a tear in the retina, which leads to tiny droplets of blood appearing as floaters. Other signs of retinal tears include flashes of light, a blurry area or curtain moving over your vision, or experiencing a large floater appearing in and out of your vision.
Retinal tears should be attended to immediately, as they can lead to detachment of the retina which is an emergency condition. If a retinal detachment is not treated, the result can be total loss of vision in the eye. Retinal tears are more common in people who are short-sighted, or who have had a sudden movement or trauma to the eye or head, like a car accident, or even bungee-jumping.
Tests and treatments for floaters
You should speak to your optometrist about any floaters you are experiencing, as they should be able to do a specialist test to check what is causing it. That way you and your eye doctor can come up with a suitable treatment plan if the situation warrants it. Often they are just the annoying but harmless type, but any that worry you should be checked.
Treatments for floaters include replacing the vitreous layer with a silicon solution – known as a vitrectomy. However, this treatment is usually reserved for very serious situations and not really a good idea for floaters that are simply a bit annoying!
Floaters can sometimes also be treated with a laser procedure, which has a reasonable chance of success – up to 77% according to some research.
If you wear glasses or contact lenses, you should be visiting your optometrist at least every two years anyway to check for changes in your vision. If you have been experiencing floaters in your eye, make sure to mention this at your next appointment!Share on