Eye floaters: What the heck is that little fleck?

Eye floaters, those round small circles, flecks, lines, webs or dots, in your field of vision are mostly harmless.

Nick Beare 3 minute read May 27, 2021
eye floaters

The little fleck or mark in your field of vision can be downright annoying. Getty

With precious few months of nice weather in Southern Ontario, I like to sit outside and read when possible. Recently, while trying to enjoy my novel, a tiny black something drifted into my line of vision — back and forth, it made its way across my eyeball, over and over again. My first thought was that a fly had found its way into my unsuspecting peeper, but after a few seconds of absent-minded — and unsuccessful — swatting I realized what it really was: an eye floater.

Appearing as small circles, flecks, lines, webs or dots, eye floaters are those annoying spots (not bugs) in your field of vision that appear to move away every time you try to look at them. And while they appear to be in front of the eye, they are actually inside the eye.

According to the Mayo Clinic, floaters are tiny clumps of microscopic fibres within the vitreous (the gel that fills the space between the lens and retina in the eye). Those little clumps cast shadows on the retina, which is actually what we are seeing in our field of vision. Eye floaters are usually caused by changes to the vitreous as we age. The vitreous gel becomes more liquid over time and begins to shrink, causing clumping that blocks light entering the eye, hence the shadows.

“A newborn has completely coherent jelly and someone who’s 100 years old basically has this cavity filled with fluid because the jelly has liquefied,” Shameema Sikder, MD, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute told Health in an interview. “The transition is kind of like a lava lamp where the bits of jelly are floating around bathed in bits of liquid.”


Are they dangerous?
While the occasional eye floater coming and going on its own is almost always harmless, they can be a signal of a larger issue. According to Health, , if you experience a sudden onset of floaters — often accompanied by flashes of light — it could be an early sign of retinal detachment and you should seek medical attention immediately. A retinal detachment can lead to permanent vision loss.

Inflammation in the back of the eye, called posterior uveitis, can sometimes cause floaters. Uveitis is usually caused by an infection in the eye or presence of an inflammatory disorder.

Eye surgeries and certain eye medications that may include an injection into the vitreous can cause air bubbles that look like floaters until they are absorbed. These floaters usually disappear within a couple weeks.

Who is most likely to get floaters?
Ageing – mostly in people over 50 – is the main cause of most floaters. But the Mayo Clinic lists a few other risk factors that may make you more likely to experience them, including nearsightedness, eye trauma, complications from cataract surgery, and diabetic retinopathy.

For most people, there isn’t much we can do about the occasional floater drifting through our vision. The good news is that your brain will get used to them and begin to subconsciously ignore them over time. In more serious cases where the eye is inflamed, infected or filled with floaters, an eye surgery called a vitrectomy can be done to remove part of the vitreous gel. A vitrectomy may also be performed after a traumatic eye injury, retinal detachment or other serious eye issue.

Some people may elect to have laser therapy on their eye to remove floaters as well. Laser therapy is more common than ever, but carries the risk of damage to the retina.

And although it does not target floaters specifically, doctors also recommend maintaining proper nutrition to support eye health.

Nick Beare is a writer with Healthing.ca


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