Retina - What are flashes and floaters?
You may sometimes see small specks or clouds moving in your field of vision. These are called floaters. You can often see them when looking at a plain background, like a blank wall or blue sky. Floaters are actually tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous, the clear, gel-like fluid that fills the inside of your eye.
While these objects look like they are in front of your eye, they are actually floating inside it. What you see are the shadows they cast on the retina, the layer of cells lining the back of the eye that senses light and allows you to see. Floaters can appear as different shapes, such as little dots, circles, lines, clouds or cobwebs.
When the vitreous gel rubs or pulls on the retina, you may see what look like flashing lights or lightning streaks. You may have experienced this same sensation if you have ever been hit in the eye and seen “stars.” The flashes of light can appear off and on for several weeks or months.
As we grow older, it is more common to experience floaters and flashes as the vitreous gel changes with age, gradually pulling away from the inside surface of the eye.
Symptoms of floaters and flashes include:
- Small specks or clouds moving in your field of vision;
- Dots, circles, lines or “cobwebs” in your field of vision;
- Seeing flashes of light or “stars.”
If the vitreous gel shrinks and pulls away from the wall of the eye, the retina can tear. This sometimes causes a small amount of bleeding in the eye that may appear as new floaters.
A torn retina is always a serious problem, since it can lead to retinal detachment. You should see Doctor Murphy as soon as possible if:
- You suddenly see an increase in the size and number of floaters;
- You suddenly see flashes of light.
Some people experience flashes of light that appear as jagged lines or “heat waves” in both eyes, often lasting 10 to 20 minutes. These are not flashes from the vitreous gel rubbing or pulling on the retina; instead, these types of flashes are usually caused by a spasm of blood vessels in the brain, called a migraine.
If a headache follows the flashes, it is called a migraine headache. However, jagged lines or heat waves can occur without a headache. In this case, the light flashes are called ophthalmic migraine, or migraine without headache. Contact your ophthalmologist if you experience these symptoms.
If you notice other symptoms, like the loss of side vision, you should see Doctor Murphy.