When to see your doctor about Floaters

  • You suddenly see a shower of spots, flashing lights or a stationary spot accompanied by blurred vision or shadowed side vision.
  • You see spots after receiving a blow to the head or eye.

What Your Symptom Is Telling You

Has your line of vision been invaded by what looks like tiny black gnats swarming around you? And are you the only one who sees them? If you’re getting up in years, these black specks are usually nothing to worry about. They are nothing more than harmless bits of your eyeball’s inner fluid floating into view.

Your doctor calls them floaters.

Floaters are common after age 50, according to Jason Slakter, M.D., attending surgeon in the Department of Ophthalmology at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital.

As you age, the transparent gel-like substance inside the eyeball shrinks and separates into a clear fluid and a stringy residue. The opaque strings may float behind the lens and cast a shadow on the retina—the back of the eyeball where the image is received. This causes the sensation of dark spots, circles or squiggly lines.

Nearsighted people are particularly prone to floaters, says Dr. Slakter. More often than not, says Dr. Slakter, the spots eventually disappear on their own or your brain suppresses the image. You may not even notice them unless you’re fatigued. Even so, floaters that persist could mean you have an inflammation or infection within your eye or elsewhere in your body that is causing the problem.

What’s more, if you frequently experience floaters, your retina could be torn, which could threaten your sight. You should always bring persistent floaters to the attention of your doctor.

Symptom Relief

No matter what kind of spots you’re seeing, there are techniques to clear them from view. Exercise your eyeball. Floaters will vanish if you rapidly move your eyes up and down. This stirs up the eyeballs’ fluid, causing the floaters to settle outside your line of vision.

“It’s like shaking a snow globe paperweight that stirs and then settles its fluffy contents,” says Mitchell H. Friedlaender, M.D., director of corneal services in the Division of Ophthalmology at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, California, and coauthor of 20/20: A Total Guide to Improving Your Vision and Preventing Eye Disease.

Seal the tears

If tears in the retina are causing spots—this is a diagnosis that must be made by a physician—your doctor can seal the rip with a laser light or by freezing. The procedures can be done in the doctor’s office with a local anesthetic and can help prevent the retina from becoming detached.

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