Have you ever watched someone swatting at an invisible bug? What if that “bug” wasn’t invisible at all but rather something that only the swatter could see? Maybe you’ve been the one trying to hit a bug that doesn’t really exist.
Thousands of people around the world see small flecks floating right in front of their eyes. Many times, people think these are insects or stray eyelashes. In reality, these flecks are tiny floaters drifting around the inside of your eye. Even though the thought of having something floating in your eye is strange and scary, most of the time it is completely harmless.
A floater is generally a small accumulation of tissue that has detached from the light sensitive tissue — the retina — in the back of the eye. As we age, the gel-like material in the eye — the vitreous — tends to shrink. As it does, it can tug on the retina, causing a small bit to detach. This process is called a vitreous detachment. Unlike a retinal detachment, a vitreous detachment is common and typically is not cause for alarm.
Although floaters appear in many shapes and colors, most are generally dark in color (black or brown) and round or string-like in shape. Most often, people report seeing a floater when looking at a bright or light-colored surface, such as the sky or a wall.
Because vitreous detachment is generally part of the aging process, most floaters occur in people between 45 and 75 years of age. This means a person may see one or more floaters over the course of his lifetime. Floaters also occur in some younger people who are extremely nearsighted, have experienced a traumatic eye injury or underwent eye surgery.
In rare instances, floaters indicate something more than just an age-related vitreous detachment. If floaters are accompanied by flashes of light — often reported as lightning strikes in a person’s peripheral vision — this could be a sign of a retinal detachment. Floaters with a web-like shape could indicate bleeding in the eye. In both situations, seek the advice of a medical eye professional immediately to prevent any loss of vision.
Small floaters resulting from vitreous detachment are generally not treated and never completely disappear. Over time, gravity pulls the annoying flecks from a person’s vision and settles them into the lower portions of the eye where they are less noticeable. In extreme cases, larger floaters that cause visual disturbances can be treated with a laser procedure. An ophthalmologist determines the necessity of this treatment on a case-by-case basis. If the floaters are a result of a larger problem, such as a retinal detachment or hemorrhage, surgery for the underlying problem is preformed. Occasionally the floaters are removed during that process.
Floaters are harmless in the majority of cases. However, there is always the chance that they are caused by something that could damage your vision. Placing a call to your ophthalmologist or eye care professional is the simplest way to determine if further action is necessary. If a visit to your eye doctor’s office is required, a dilated eye exam lets him determine the cause of your floaters and most probably provides you with peace of mind.
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