What Are Eye Floaters?
Floaters are shadow-like images that can be seen shifting in your vision, they are normally small and can take the form of spots, squiggles, or threads. They are somewhat appropriately known in the medical world as myodesopsias or muscae volitantes - meaning flying flies in Latin.
If you have ever stared aimlessly off into the distance and happened to notice something shadow-like drift across your field of view, that was probably a floater, but do you know what it is or why it's there?
What Causes Floaters
Floaters are actually tiny pieces of tissue that have broken off from the interior of the eye and are freely drifting through its fluid-filled center. When that tissue passes between the pupil and the retina, incoming light is blocked and a shadow is cast.
Depending on how they interfere with incoming light, floaters may appear as small, blob-like shapes, or as long, narrow strings, they can also appear as dark shadows or as bright high-lighted spots.
Often times a floater may pass through the eye but go completely unnoticed, this is likely because the background against which they appear is busy, complex, and full of motion. It's unlikely that a floater will catch a person's attention while watching an action movie at the cinema since there is so much visual stimulus for it to get "lost" in. However, staring at a blank wall or backdrop allows the tiny distortions to show up much more visibly by contrast.
Why Do Floaters Keep Moving
Once a floater is noticed, it can be almost impossible to follow it as it moves. This is because of the unique relationship that floaters have with the eyes. Nearly everything that a person looks at throughout their entire lives is completely unaffected by the action of observing. Watching a pot doesn't make it boil any faster, and nor does it make the clock go any slower.
Floaters, however, can alter their movement just because you try to look at them. By twitching the eye, even slightly, in order to focus directly on the floater, the fluid inside the eye is stirred, causing the floater to move. Attempting to follow it more only results in more movements, and eventually, it drifts out of sight completely.
Only on the off chance that it drifts right through the center of vision will you be able to get a somewhat clear image of the floater, and even then, it only lasts for a second or two. Unless the eyes stay completely motionless, locked in focus on a singular distant point, the fluid inside will perpetually be in motion, and so will the floaters suspended within.
Do Floaters Increase with Age
People are more likely to experience floaters as they age. What starts off as a thick, gel-like substance in the center of the eye slowly becomes less viscous over time. With less resistance, the small bits of tissue are able to move about more freely, resulting in a greater frequency in the appearance of floaters.
Are Floaters Serious
Floaters, and are incredibly common. In most cases they aren't anything to worry about, but in some rare situations they may indicate a serious medical emergency. Whether or not you should be concerned depends on any other symptoms that may be occurring at the same time, such as seeing sudden flashes of light.
One or two floaters at a time aren’t anything to be concerned with, but many of them appearing within a short period of time isn't normal. Also, the appearance of bright flashes of light along with floaters is also something to be concerned about.
What may be happening in this type of situation is that the retina, the tissue in the back of the eye that senses light, may be detaching from the rest of the eye. This condition, referred to medically as post vitreous detachment, normally occurs without any cause for concern, but in a few people PVD can lead to a retinal tear and in very rare cases a retinal detachment.
If you experience multiple floaters accompanied by bright flashes of light always seek out medical attention immediately.
Is There Any Treatment For Floaters
Floaters are rarely an indication of anything serious, so for most people no treatment is required. If you find your floaters annoying or troublesome you can try minimising their effect or your ability to see them so clearly by wearing dark glasses, this will be most effective in bright sunlight.
In most cases, floaters will get less noticeable in time as your brain adjusts to the changes in your eyes.
Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 10 Apr 2018, Last modified: 11 Apr 2023