What are floaters?

Floaters are small specks, squiggly lines, or cobweb-like images that seem to dart about in front of your eyes, especially in front of something bright—like a blue sky or a white background (such as a computer screen or paper). They move as your eyes move. Floaters can be insignificant and annoying, or they may signal something more serious, like detachment of the retina. They tend to develop as we age and may be more common in people who have diabetes, are nearsighted, or had a cataract operation.

Why do floaters develop?

The vitreous is a gel-like substance that fills about 80 percent of your eyes, giving them their round shape. Over time, it slowly shrinks and can become stringy. The strands that result cast tiny shadows on the retina that cause you to see floaters. When a section of the vitreous pulls fine fibers away from the retina all at once, you may suddenly see many new floaters. Such “vitreous detachment” is typically not a threat to your sight and requires no treatment. The floaters eventually seem to settle at the bottom of the eye, below your line of sight.

If you see a sudden increase in floaters accompanied by flashes of light or reduced peripheral (side) vision, however, you may have a detached retina and should see an ophthalmologist right away. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of each eye, and it can lift or pull away from its natural position. If you don’t get it treated, it can lead to permanent loss of vision in the affected eye—sometimes within just two or three days.

How do you treat floaters?

No treatment is recommended for floaters that are just annoying. If floaters are caused by retinal detachment, then an eye care professional needs to treat the detached retina as soon as possible.

If your floaters are so dense and numerous that you feel they are significantly affecting your vision, you may opt for a surgical procedure called a “vitrectomy.” During this operation, the eye surgeon removes the vitreous gel and its floating debris and replaces it with a salt solution. However, there is a significant risk of complications such as retinal detachment, retinal tears, and cataracts associated with vitrectomy, so surgeons are hesitant to perform this operation unless your floaters are seriously impairing your vision.

Source: The National Eye Institute (NEI)