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Eye floaters: Are they something to worry about?

Eye floaters are tiny shadows that can appear in a person’s vision. They often show up as small specks or scribbles of grey or black that float into your field of vision. Floaters move with your eyes, and tend to dart away when you try to look directly at them. They can also continue to drift a bit when you stop moving your eyes.

What causes floaters?

The bulk of your eye is made up of vitreous, a jelly-like substance that gives your eyes their round shape. As people age, the vitreous changes and becomes watery. Tiny pieces of the gel can break loose, and form clumps. These clumps can cast shadows on your retina and appear as black floaters in your eye.

This can happen at any age, but it’s more common after age 40. In fact, eye floaters are considered a normal part of the aging process. Younger people who are diabetic, very nearsighted, or have had cataract surgery are also more likely to experience floaters. Infection, inflammation, bleeding, retinal tears, or injury can also cause them.

When is treatment for floaters in vision necessary?

Generally, there is no need for alarm if you develop floaters in your vision. In most cases, no treatment is required, and the floaters may eventually sink out of your field of vision.

However, if they interfere with your vision, your doctor may recommend surgery.

A vitrectomy is a surgical procedure that removes the loose clumps of vitreous. This surgery is reserved for patients who are extremely bothered by the floaters because of the risk of complications.

Another option is the use of a laser to break up the floaters. This procedure also has some risks, and does not always remove the floaters entirely.

In either case, your eye care specialist would be able to provide guidance on the best course of action. Remember, getting your regular eye health exam is always important.

When are eye floaters an emergency?

For the most part floaters in the eyes are harmless. However, these sudden symptoms need immediate attention from an eye care professional:

  • A sudden increase in the number of eye floaters
  • Floaters that are red in color
  • A sudden onset of eye pain with new floaters
  • Flashes that suddenly appear in your vision
  • A loss of peripheral vision (the far sides of your field of vision) which can appear like a curtain that begins to block your vision from the side

These sudden symptoms can be signs of a retinal tear or detachment. This is a very serious condition that could result in permanent vision loss. Early detection and treatment may help save your sight.

More often, these floaters may be a less serious condition known as a vitreous detachment. It's estimated that more than half of us will experience vitreous detachment by age 80.

An eye doctor is the only one who can tell the difference, so it’s important to see a specialist immediately if you notice any of the sudden symptoms listed.

Thankfully, floaters in your vision are more often an annoyance than a reason to be concerned. They become more common as we age, and except for some extreme cases, you simply learn to live with them.

But if you experience the sudden symptoms listed above, or find the floaters too distracting, please make an appointment to see your eye doctor right away.

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