What Causes Flashes and Floaters and Are They Cause for Concern?

You’re sitting comfortably at home, relaxing in your recliner, staring at the ceiling, and you see a speck move across your field of vision. You look away from the ceiling but the speck remains, floating in your line of sight. You rub your eye, but the speck remains.

This is called a floater, and you may see what looks like a cloud instead of a speck. Sometimes floaters look like dots or circles, lines, or cobwebs. Floaters can be disconcerting and a bit disorienting.

Another situation: You’re eating dinner and you see flashes. You may wonder if the power flickered. You may even see what looks like lightning streaks on a sunny day. These are called flashes. They also happen when you get hit and “see stars.”

Flashes may happen off and on over a period of weeks or months. Sometimes flashes precede a migraine. 

At Opulent Eyes Optometry, we put together some information about these generally benign conditions and when you should seek treatment.

Behind your eye

The back two-thirds of your eye is filled with a substance called vitreous. It’s a clear gel that looks a bit like uncooked egg white. Vitreous supports your eyeball and creates a path for the light that enters your eye through the lens. 

Cause of floaters

A floater is the shadow of a microscopic cluster of cells or a tiny amount of protein passing through your vitreous. If you try to look directly at a floater, it appears to race away. If you stop moving your eye, the floater drifts slowly around in your line of vision. 

As you age, your vitreous shrinks and becomes stringier, and that stringiness creates the shadows that are floaters. By the time you’re in your 60s, there’s roughly a 25% chance you’re seeing floaters. By the time you’re in your 80s, that chance increases to about 60%. 

Being nearsighted, having diabetes, or having had cataract surgery all increase the likelihood of having floaters. Most of the time, floaters don’t cause problems. 

Cause of flashes

Flashes also have to do with your vitreous, but rather than shadows, they’re caused by the vitreous humor bumping or rubbing against your retina. Flashes, like floaters, tend to occur more often as you age.

When flashes are related to migraines, they can last as long as 20 minutes. It’s also possible to have the flashes without the headache. When that happens, it’s called an ophthalmic migraine. 

When to worry

Although flashes and floaters aren’t generally cause for worry, there can be times that they indicate a more serious problem. For example, if you notice a sudden increase in the number of floaters you see, or if flashes happen much more often, there could be a problem that requires treatment. 

If you ever see a shadow in your peripheral vision, or if it looks like a gray curtain is covering part of your field of vision, you should seek care right away. If your retina pulls away from the back of your eye, you have a detached retina, which is serious and requires treatment. 

At Opulent Eyes Optometry, Dr. Jeffrey Taranto is happy to answer your questions regarding flashes and floaters. He and our staff provide services in English, Spanish, Farsi, Armenian, and Chinese, and are dedicated to making sure you’re completely satisfied with your visit to our office. 

You can book an appointment at any time using our online scheduling option, or feel free to call our Studio City, California, office. 

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