Flashes and Floaters

Why am I seeing flashes and floating objects in my vision?
You may sometimes see small specks, wispy threads or squiggles moving across your vision. These are called floaters. You can often see them when looking at a plain, light-colored background, like a blank wall or blue sky. A floater can indicate
a vision emergency so be aware that a floater may be the first sign of a serious eye problem.

Floaters are tiny clumps of cells or materials inside the vitreous, the clear, gel-like fluid that fills the inside of your eye, says Dr. Ruben Grigorian, a retina specialist at Haik Humble Eye Center.

While these objects look like they are in front of your eye, they are actually floating inside it. What you see are the shadows they cast on the retina, the layer of cells lining the back of the eye that senses light and allows you to see. Floaters can appear as different shapes, such as little dots, circles, lines, squiggles or “cobwebs.”

There are also other types of floaters, usually seen in the eyes of people who have certain medical conditions. For example, floaters in a person who has diabetes can indicate bleeding inside the eye.

When the vitreous gel pulls on the retina, you may see what look like flashing lights or lightning streaks. These are called flashes. You may have experienced this same sensation if you have ever been hit in the eye and seen “stars.” The flashes of light can appear off and on for several weeks or months. The most common complaint is “it looks like a curtain has come down over my vision.”

As we grow older, it is more common to experience floaters as the vitreous gel changes with age, gradually pulling away from the inside surface of the eye. There is no way of knowing the cause of floaters without a careful examination. This is why it is important for anyone who starts seeing flashes or floaters to schedule an appointment with their eye doctor as soon as possible. All flashes and floaters are concerning to both patient and the eye doctor and may justify a call to the retina specialist to make sure there has been no damage to your retina.

The sudden onset of persistent floaters, sometimes accompanied by lightning-like flashes of light, needs to be checked immediately, so call your eye doctor that same day. Such symptoms may represent the beginning of a retinal tear or retinal detachment. Both of these conditions are sight-threatening and you need to seek medical attention immediately.

“If you catch a retinal tear or detachment early, you’re more likely to save vision,” Dr. Grigorian says.

The appearance of flashes and floaters may be alarming, especially if they develop very suddenly. To find out if a retinal tear or detachment is occurring, you should call a retina specialist right away if you notice the following symptoms, especially if you are over 45 years of age, have had an injury to your eyes or head, or if you have substantial nearsightedness:

  • A sudden increase in size and number of floaters
  • A sudden appearance of flashes
  • Having a shadow or curtain appear in the periphery (side) of your field of vision
  • Seeing a gray curtain moving across your field of vision
  • Having a sudden decrease in your vision