Help! I’m Seeing Floaters and Flashes

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If you’ve ever seen small black specks or squiggly lines floating before your eyes, you’ve experienced floaters. A normal sign of aging, floaters are common and usually harmless.

Some people also experience flashes, like lightning streaks or seeing stars. This, too, is somewhat common and does not affect your vision.

Vision Changes That Come With Age

In most cases, floaters and flashes are part of the normal aging process.

Here’s what’s going on inside your eyes: Your eyes are filled with a gel-like substance called vitreous. This fluid helps the eye maintain its round shape. As we age, the vitreous shrinks. It can become stringy or clumpy. The spots or thread-like images you see are floaters moving around inside your eye.

Floaters are most often seen when you’re looking at a bright, blank space, such as a wall or the sky. They can be annoying, but usually your brain learns to ignore them.

Flashes occur when the vitreous rubs or pulls on your retina.

Floaters: Annoying But Generally Harmless 

Floaters are more common in people who are:

  • Very nearsighted
  • Have diabetes
  • Had previous cataract surgery

Some people notice many new floaters appearing at once. This can be caused by a vitreous detachment. This happens when part of the vitreous pulls a bunch of fibers away from the retina all at once. Vitreous detachment also can occur with no symptoms.

Be sure to get regular eye exams to keep your vision healthy, especially if you have diabetes.

In most cases, no treatment is needed for floaters or a vitreous detachment. Over time floaters settle at the bottom of the eye and out of the line of vision.

If the number of floaters impacts your vision (which is very rare) your doctor may perform surgery to remove them.

In most cases, floaters and flashes are part of the normal aging process.

Bright Lights, Big Headache

Flashes can come and go and can last for weeks or months. Some people see flashes in one or both eyes that look like jagged lines or heat waves. These flashes can last about 20 minutes and may be associated with a blood vessel spasm in the brain.

If the flashes occur before a headache, it is called a migraine headache. If the flashes occur without a headache, it is called an ophthalmic or ocular migraine.

Talk with your doctor about treatment options for migraines if you are having frequent migraine headaches or ophthalmic migraines.

Signs of More Serious Eye Issues

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If you experience a sudden increase in floaters and flashes, this could be a sign of a problem, such as an infection, inflammation (uveitis), hemorrhaging, retinal tears or an eye injury.

Your doctor can perform a dilated eye exam to check your retina and look for signs of a tear or detachment.

A retinal detachment or tear is a serious eye condition and should be treated right away. The retina can tear as the vitreous is pulling away from it. Retinal tears and detachments are emergency situations because they also can involve torn blood vessels, which can leak blood into the vitreous, causing more floaters.

A retinal tear can occur in anyone at any age, but they are more likely in people who:

  • Are nearsighted
  • Are older
  • Recently had cataract surgery
  • Had trauma to the eyes

Call your doctor and seek emergency eye care if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • A shower of floaters 
  • Lots of flashes
  • A shadow in your peripheral vision
  • A gray curtain covering part of your vision

Be sure to follow up with your doctor. Many doctors will re-check your eyes to make sure no new retinal tears develop.

Small Steps: What’s Causing Your Cloudy Vision?
Ask your eye doctor to perform a comprehensive eye exam on you to see if a cataract is the culprit.