The middle of the eye is filled with a clear vitreous gel that is attached to the retina. As we age, the vitreous gel thins and slowly pulls away from the back of the eye. Floaters and flashes are common symptoms of this process. Floaters can also be more common in people who are nearsighted, who have had cataract surgery or an inflammation inside the eye, or who have diabetes.
While floaters and flashes may be bothersome and distracting, they are typically harmless and not sight threatening. Floaters and flashes can, however, be a warning sign of a more serious eye problem, such as a retinal detachment, which requires immediate medical attention. (See “Floaters and Flashes: Emergency Signs” for more information.)
Floaters appear as small specks or spots drifting in your field of vision. These tiny flecks of protein may be well defined with clear edges, or faint and translucent. Chronic floaters can be annoying, but they tend to come and go, or fade over time, and they rarely get bad enough to require treatment.
Flashes can look like flickering lights or lightning streaks in your field of vision. It is not uncommon to see flashes occasionally as you get older, and they might last on and off for weeks or months. Flashes can usually be seen most clearly when looking at a bright background.
Headaches, specifically migraines, can also trigger flashes in one or both eyes, as can a hit or “blow” to the head.
Floaters due to aging are harmless and fade over time, and treatment is usually not required or recommended. Do see your ophthalmologist or optometrist regularly for an eye exam, and report any new symptoms or changes in vision.
If flashes and floaters are due to a retinal detachment or a retinal tear, eye surgery may be required. (See “Floaters and Flashes: Emergency Signs” for more information.)
While floaters and flashes are typically harmless, the following signs may indicate a more serious, sight-threatening problem. If you experience these issues, seek immediate medical attention from your eye doctor to prevent possible, permanent vision loss: