Eye floaters are tiny flecks or shapes that float around in your vision. The normal gel-like substance (vitreous humour) in your eyeball breaks down as you age. When this happens, protein fibres in the vitreous can stick together, creating tiny specks and strands that appear as floaters.
As their name suggests, eye floaters ‘float’ around in your field of vision as your eyes move and can take many shapes, including squiggly lines or cobwebs. People might remove their contact lenses or rinse their eyes, thinking they have something in their eye, but the specks are actually inside the eyeball.
Although eye floaters are common and often harmless, in some cases, they can indicate an eye disease or condition that needs medical attention. Here, we’ll talk about the causes, symptoms and treatments for eye floaters and when to get medical help.
What causes eye floaters?
Eye floaters often occur with normal ageing and some people notice more floaters than others. Over time, the vitreous gel at the back of the eye liquefies and shrinks, and the vitreous pulls away from the retina. This is called posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). Fibres in the vitreous clump together and cast shadows onto your retina, causing the flecks that appear in your field of vision (Source: nei.nih.gov).
PVD isn’t a serious threat to vision, but an optometrist or ophthalmologist should assess your eyes to rule out more serious eye conditions (Source: Vitreous Floaters). If the process happens slowly, symptoms are mild and gradual, but if it occurs suddenly, it can cause a tear in the retina or damage the blood vessels at the back of your eye and lead to symptoms of ‘flashes and floaters’. If this happens, you should see your optician for a check-up (Source: Vitreous Floaters).
Symptoms of eye floaters
The shape and colour of floaters can vary from person to person. Common shapes include lines, flecks, cobwebs, spots or circles. You may find that floaters are more visible when looking at something bright, like a white wall or blue sky.
Treatment for eye floaters
In most cases, eye floaters do not need treatment; people will get used to them and learn to ignore them. Floaters are commonly due to a posterior vitreous detachment, which is associated with normal ageing and does not usually cause vision loss. However, if an eye exam shows signs of damage, like a retinal tear or detached retina, you'll need urgent treatment from an eye doctor. In very few cases, you may need a vitrectomy, which is the removal of the vitreous.
When to get medical help
Floaters are common and not usually serious, especially if you have had them for a long time, they are not getting worse, and the eyesight is not affected (Source: NHS). However, you need to seek advice from a specialist healthcare practitioner, like an optometrist or ophthalmologist (eye doctor), if:
- You notice a sudden onset of floaters
- They are associated with flashes of light
- You notice a sudden increase in your floaters
- Your eyesight is blurred
- You have a shadow or ‘curtain’ across your vision
- You experience pain in your eye
- The floaters come on after eye surgery or an injury
Frequently asked questions
In most cases, eye floaters are a harmless part of the natural ageing process. However, in some instances, floaters can indicate a more serious eye problem, so always see your doctor or get an ophthalmology check-up if you develop new floaters or have any other worrying symptoms.
Medically reviewed by: The Royal College of Ophthalmologists on 22/08/2022
Edited by: Nick Astbury FRCS FRCOphth FRCP
Clinical Associate Professor
The Royal College of Ophthalmologists champions excellence in the practice of ophthalmology and is the only professional membership body for medically qualified ophthalmologists. The RCOphth is unable to offer direct advice to patients. If you’re concerned about the health of your eyes, you should seek medical advice from your GP, optometrist or ophthalmologist.