Floaters

Floaters are shapes which people can see drifting across their vision. The exact form of these is very variable – they may appear as small dots or irregularly shaped strands.

  • The eye is filled by a jelly-like substance, the vitreous.

    As the vitreous ages, strands of a protein called collagen become visible within it. These strands swirl gently when the eye moves, giving rise to the perception of floaters. In some people, usually over the age of 40, the vitreous can separate from the retina. When this happens it tugs on the retina, causing the eye to see flashes of bright white light. A sudden increase (shower) of floaters is usually seen at the same time. This is called posterior vitreous detachment and may lead to retinal detachment.

    Are floaters serious?
    Generally people should not be concerned about seeing one or two floaters in their vision, particularly if they have been there for some time. A sudden increase in the number of floaters, especially if you also see white flashing lights, is seen with posterior vitreous detachment. If you see this you should see an eye doctor urgently to ensure you are not getting a retinal detachment.

    Can floaters be removed?
    It is technically possible to remove floaters by performing an operation to remove the vitreous, a vitrectomy. Unfortunately, this operation carries significant risks to sight because of the possible complications, which include retinal detachment and cataract. Most eye surgeons are therefore reluctant to recommend this surgery unless there is a threat to sight.

  • If you have floaters, you may not notice them all the time. When your eyes are still, or you are gazing into space, you may see them drift slowly across your vision.
    Floaters are usually grey and semi-transparent. They may move when you move your eyes. When you move your eye to look in different directions, the floaters may appear to move quickly.
    However, floaters do not tend to follow your eye movement precisely, and they will often seem to dart away as you try to look directly at them.

    Floaters occur in a variety of forms
    Floaters can occur in a variety of different forms. They may appear as:

    • dots,
    • circles,
    • lines,
    • cobwebs, or
    • other shapes.

    You may notice lots of small floaters in your field of vision, or just one or two larger ones.

    Most floaters are small and quickly move out of your field of vision. Larger floaters can be distracting and make activities that involve high levels of concentration, such as reading or driving, difficult.
    Floaters are often most noticeable when you are looking at a clear-coloured background, such as a white wall or a clear sky.

  • Natural debris
    The large area in the middle of your eyeball is filled with a clear, jelly-like substance called vitreous humour. As you get older, the vitreous humour can become less firm and strands of a protein called collagen may become visible within it. The collagen strands may appear to swirl as your eye moves.

    Normally, light travels through the clear layer of vitreous humour in order to reach the retina. The retina is the light sensitive layer of cells and tissue at the back of your eye which transmits images to your brain via the optic nerve. Any objects, such as floaters, that are in the vitreous humour will cast shadows on to the retina.

    Posterior vitreous detachment (PVD)
    Posterior vitreous detachment (PVD) can be the result of changes that occur to the vitreous humour of the eye, as the eye gets older. PVD is a common condition that occurs in about 75% of people over 65.

    With age, the central part of the vitreous humour becomes more liquid, and the outer part, known as the cortex (which contains more collagen) starts to shrink away from the retina. Floaters develop as a result of the collagen thickening and clumping together.

    As well as floaters, flashing can be another symptom of PVD. Flashing may occur when the outer part of the vitreous humour pulls on the light sensitive tissue of the retina. The pulling stimulates the retina, causing your brain to interpret it as a light signal. This creates the sensation of flashing lights.
    Retinal tears
    In a few cases of PVD, when the vitreous humour pulls on the retina, it can cause the tiny blood vessels in the retina to burst and bleed into the vitreous. The red blood cells may appear as tiny black dots, or they may look like smoke. However, as the blood is re-absorbed back into the retina, floaters that are caused by tears tend to disappear over the course of a few months.

    In approximately half of all people, the vitreous humour has separated from the retina by the time they are 50. This doesn’t usually cause any problems, and most people aren’t even aware that it has happened.
    In some cases, the vitreous humour remains attached to parts of the retina and it tears the retina as it pulls away. If the retina tears, blood that escapes into the vitreous humour can cause a ‘shower’ of lots of floaters at once. You may also see flashes of bright, white light in your vision that look a little like lightening streaks.
    It is important to be aware that flashes in your vision are not necessarily a sign of retinal tears, or retinal detachment (see below). They may have another cause, such as a migraine with aura (a headache with a ‘zig-zag’ pattern across your field of vision).

    Floaters and flashes do not usually cause long-term visual impairment, but if you experience them it is important that you visit an eye care specialist, such as an optometrist, in order to have an eye examination.

    Retinal detachment
    If you have retinal tears, you will need to be treated as soon as possible because tears can lead to retinal detachment. Retinal detachment occurs when the retina separates from the wall at the back of the eye. If this happens, it can damage your sight.

    After the light has passed through the eye and reaches the retina, the retina changes the light into meaningful electric signals. The signals are sent through the optic nerve to the brain, where they are translated into the images that you see.
    If the retina is damaged, the images that are received by the brain become patchy, or may be lost completely.

    Other causes
    If you have had eye surgery, such as a cataract operation, you are more likely to experience floaters, PVD, retinal tears, and retinal detachment. In some cases, floaters may also be the result of a number of other causes including:

    • infection,
    • inflammation (uveitis),
    • eye disease, or
    • eye injury.
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Floaters consultants
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Mr Peter Addison


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Mr Chien Wong


Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon

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Professor David Charteris


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Miss Seema Verma


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Mr Raj Das-Bhaumik


Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon

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Miss Dawn Sim


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Mr Bishwanath Pal


Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon

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Professor Lyndon Da Cruz


Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon

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Mr Jaheed Khan


Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon

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Mr Badrul Hussain


Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon

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Mr Eric Ezra


Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon

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Professor Michel Michaelides


Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon

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Miss Dhanes Thomas


Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon

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Mr Praveen Patel


Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon

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