Have you ever noticed something drifting around your field of vision, but whenever you try to get a closer look it disappears, only to reappear as soon as you move your eyes? What you are seeing is a common phenomenon known as an eye floater.
Eye floaters are small structures (clumps of protein) inside your eye that cause you to see spots, transparent blobs or tiny worm-like shapes drifting through your vision.
Floaters move around as you shift your glance and are most obvious when you are looking at a uniform, bright background such as a blank wall or clear blue sky.
Floaters come in different shapes and sizes and you can have multiple floaters at once. People often describe their floaters as looking like black dots, hairs, cobwebs or even insects drifting around their vision. Some patients say they find themselves trying to swat a mosquito, only to realise the image is shifting with their eye movements.
As we get older, the jelly-like fluid that makes up the bulk of the eye (called the vitreous humour) goes from a smooth, thick texture to a more watery fluid with tiny clumps of protein floating through it. When light enters the eye, those clumps cast shadows onto the retina (the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye), which then appear in the image that you see. As you look around, the clumps drift in the jelly and the shadows appear to float through your field of vision.
Aside from natural age-related changes to the vitreous humour, there is normally no specific cause of eye floaters, though an eye injury, infection, inflammation or retinal tear can cause them.
It might be quite concerning to see something floating around in your field of vision, but floaters are very common and harmless. In fact, most people will experience eye floaters at some time in their life (after 40 years of age).
Although floaters themselves aren’t dangerous, in rare cases they can be a symptom of a sight-threatening condition.
As the vitreous shrinks, it can tug on the retina at the back of the eye and cause a retinal tear or detachment – where the retina comes away from the vitreous humour. When this happens, you may see big flashes or streaks of light, black spots and/or a black shadow coming over your vision. This is a very serious, potentially blinding condition that needs urgent medical attention.
Because floaters can be a symptom of a potentially blinding condition, it is important that you have any new floaters examined to rule out a retinal tear or detachment. Make an appointment with your optometrist, who will refer you to an ophthalmologist if necessary.
It’s important to get any new floaters checked right away because if a retinal tear is caught early it is easier to treat – but if it gets worse, more invasive surgery may be necessary.
In most cases, eye floaters will go away after a few months, either because they have drifted out of view or because you no longer notice them.
Occasionally, eye floaters do not resolve by themselves. If your floaters are negatively affecting your quality of life, you should book a consultation with an ophthalmologist who specialises in retinal conditions. After assessing your floaters, they will be able to discuss your treatment options with you.
There are two treatments for eye floaters. A surgeon can use a laser to break up the protein clumps in the jelly or they can remove the floaters with a form of keyhole surgery called vitrectomy. It is uncommon to need to treat floaters with surgery.
Vision Eye Institute has a number of highly experienced retinal surgeons who specialise in laser and surgical treatment of eye floaters.
Dr André Horak is a highly experienced general ophthalmologist, cataract and vitreoretinal surgeon. He has expertise in treating the full range of retinal conditions, including eye floaters. Dr Horak practices at Vision Eye Institute Mackay.
All medical and surgical procedures have potential complications. Check with your doctor before proceeding.
IMPORTANT: If you are concerned about your eyes and require an urgent consultation, DO NOT use this form. Please call one of our clinics during office hours or contact your nearest emergency department.