Have you ever opened your eyes and noticed dots or specks drifting around in your field of vision? What about flashes of light that appear artificial, like you’re looking into a pair of headlights? If the answer is yes, you’ve likely experienced floaters and flashes.
When it happens, you might first wonder if you’re seeing things. Or it may serve as confirmation that you’re not getting the sleep you need.
But most of the time, neither of those things are the case.
Those specks or dots are known by ophthalmologists as floaters. And they aren’t telling you to take a nap.
Seeing specks or flashes of light can actually be very dangerous for your vision. Left untreated, you might even lose sight in the affected eye.
The following post is your field guide to floaters and flashes and everything you need to know to protect your eyes as you grow older.
What are floaters and flashes?
Floaters take on different shapes. They might be dots, specks, or even look like tiny bugs or even cobwebs.
Floaters look as though they are hanging out in front of you – like you’re in a dusty space or looking right into the sun. (Don’t do that. Here’s why.)
But those specs aren’t hovering in the space in front of you like orbs – they’re inside your eye!
These annoying bits and bobs in your eye are naturally occurring. It’s not like having dust or another foreign object in your eye. They’re part of the aging process.
Your eyes are filled with what’s called vitreous humor. It’s a clear substance with a consistency like jelly. As you age, the vitreous humor loses some of its elasticity and the consistency becomes more liquid.
Some of the protein fibers also start clumping together at the same time.
So, what you’re seeing when you see eye floaters are the shadows of proteins jumbled together in a more liquid setting. The shadow you see them in is created by the light.
Brighter lights create more prominent floaters.
When should I go to the doctor?
Not all floaters are cause for concern. Seeing spots today doesn’t mean you’ll go blind tomorrow if you don’t seek medical attention.In fact, sometimes floaters are harmless and will dissipate over time.
Floaters might be annoying at first, but they often sink to the bottom of the eye. It’s also common to simply get used to them.
But there are instances where floaters are cause for concern.
If you notice the number of dots or specks is growing substantially over a short period of time or they grow in size, you should see a doctor.
Also, if you have floaters and flashes at the same time, it’s possible you have an eye issue rather than simply growing older.
What are flashes?
Flashes are flashes of light in your eyes – like seeing a lightning bolt. You might experience them for weeks or months at a time. But they’re important because they can occur when damage is being done to your retina.
Eye pain, worsening or loss of your peripheral vision, floaters that suddenly show up after surgery or other traumas are also bad signs. If you experience any of these, you should go to the doctor.
Generally speaking, if you have floaters – and especially floaters and flashes – and they’re impacting your vision, make an appointment with your eye care provider or your primary physician immediately.
What might be causing worsening symptoms?
In many cases where floaters become worse, they do so over time.
However, when they begin to increase in number suddenly, you might be experiencing retinal detachment.
Retinal detachment occurs when part of the retina – any part, large or small – is removed from its normal position.
A healthy retina lies at a position on the back wall of your eye and it is the light-sensitive part of your eye. It is detached when it is pulled or lifted away from your eye.
Another potential cause is a retinal tear (there’s a hole, but it isn’t detached).
Retinal detachment is a very reason to go to the emergency room.
If retinal detachment is untreated, it can cause damage to your vision within two to three days. It can even lead to blindness in the affected eye. Neither of these is reversible.
Retinal detachment is more likely to be found in those 40 years and older and it is more common in men compared to women.
You might also be at greater risk for retinal detachment if you:
- Have experienced injury or trauma to your eye
- Have undergone cataract surgery
- Have family members who have had retinal detachment
- Have a history of eye diseases
- Have experienced retinal detachment in your other eye
- Or if you are extremely nearsighted
Once the flashes join the floaters, you need to request an appointment with your eye specialist.
What is treatment like?
Treatment begins with a simple eye exam. It’s the only way to determine whether you’re experiencing a normal aging process or if there is something more problematic happening.
If you do have a retinal detachment, it is easily treated with modern therapies. In fact, 90% of cases are treatable (some require a second treatment).
Holes and tears in the retina can be treated with a Cryopexy (a freezing treatment) or with laser surgery. Both can be performed in the office.
Detachments require surgery and in some cases require a hospital stay.
The final result of the surgery is not always predictable; sometimes you can’t know how the detachment affected your vision until a few months after you have healed.
It also depends on when you had the surgery. The best results for your vision will occur if the repair occurs before the macula detaches.
Essentially, the best way to protect your eyesight is to make an appointment early!
To learn more about protecting your eyes as they age or get more information about caring for your eyes after cataract surgery, contact the South Texas Eye Institute today.