Have you ever noticed shadows or cobweb-like strands floating across your vision?
They will appear to be right in front of you, but you can’t usually catch a clear glimpse of them.
These shapes aren’t bugs or dust collecting behind your eyelids – they’re floaters.
This article will cover the causes of eye floaters, risk factors, and treatment methods.
What are Eye Floaters?
As your eyes age, vitreous fluids can thicken or even loosen from the back wall of the eye.
The small shapes you see floating across your vision are actually the shadows of cellular debris, often clumps of collagen fiber, cast across your retina.
These buoyant shadows are called eye floaters.
Luckily, they aren’t usually a cause of concern.
What Do Eye Floaters Look Like?
Floaters commonly present as dots, cobwebs, specks, or lines that float across your field of vision.
These shapes are commonly seen as translucent, shadowy, or dark in color.
Blank surfaces such as whiteboards or a clear blue sky make them easier to see.
It can be difficult to catch a glimpse of floaters because they move within the fluid suspension in our peripheral vision.
Floaters move within the vitreous gel at a slight delay as you shift your gaze.
While floaters may appear prominent at first, these squiggles and spots tend to fade over time.
They’re a common condition with many different causes.
Aging is the number one cause of eye floaters.
All human cells deteriorate naturally over time.
Vitreous, the gel-like suspension that fills the majority of our eyes, degenerates as well.
Throughout our lives, the gel can thicken or shrink, forming small clumps.
These clumps of cells cast shadows across our retina – the floaters.
This vitreous thickening and detachment usually begin around middle age, but this can vary depending on living conditions and overall health.
High Blood Pressure
Our eyes contain multitudes of small blood vessels. High blood pressure can cause these vessels to become blocked or swell and leak.
In some cases, fluid buildup behind the retina can cause partial or total retinal detachment.
All of these conditions can lead to developing vitreous floaters.
Floaters may be a symptom of various eye infections:
- Conjunctivitis (pink eye): infectious swelling of conjunctival blood vessels
- Keratitis: a corneal infection
- Endophthalmitis: infection of the inner coat of the eye
Each of these infections can cause floaters due to the minor trauma and inflammation of the ocular tissue.
Common eye diseases and disorders can cause floaters of various sorts.
Diseases affecting the blood vessels or retina of the eye are more likely to produce floaters.
Some examples are:
Eye diseases which have little effect on the blood vessels or vitreous fluids of the eye, such as cataracts, aren’t likely to cause floaters.
Trauma to the eye is another major cause of floaters.
Ruptured blood vessels or excessive force can create cellular debris within the vitreous fluids.
Injuries such as corneal abrasions, for example, can cause a sudden flux of floaters.
Severe injuries may present with more obvious symptoms, such as partial blindness or extreme swelling.
In these cases, floaters may be more obvious during the healing process.
Diabetic retinopathy is an umbrella term describing retinal disorders caused by diabetes.
The various symptoms of retinal damage are formative causes of vitreous floaters.
For example, high blood sugar can cause retinal damage through the closure or leakage of blood vessels within the retina.
In some cases, small abnormal blood vessels can grow in the eye, obstructing vision.
Retinal detachment may be the second largest cause of eye floaters.
Our retina is the clear, light-sensitive membrane lining the back portion of our eyes.
If the vitreous jelly surrounding the retina shrinks substantially, it may tear the retina or detach it from the posterior of the eye.
Partial or total detachment can lead to a shower of floaters across your vision.
Sometimes, blurring may occur from blood vessels leaking into the vitreous.
While the most common cause of retinal detachment is posterior vitreous detachment, it may also occur as a result of trauma or in individuals with severe nearsightedness.
Whether through external trauma or internal tearing, vitreous bleeding can cause floaters to appear in your vision.
Any time cellular debris clumps together within the vitreous gel, eye floaters manifest as a visual side effect.
Even a small amount of blood can cause floaters.
For instance, you may notice new floaters after ocular surgeries.
Autoimmune conditions such as lupus or sarcoidosis can cause severe inflammation throughout the body.
Excessive inflammation can push white blood cells into the vitreous jelly.
These cells appear as floaters in our vision.
As most floaters are caused naturally through aging, it’s rare that they’re indicative of or caused by cancers.
However, some cases of ocular melanomas can cause floaters to appear in our visual field.
Internally manifesting eye tumors are likely to have more visible symptoms such as visual field loss, dark shapes appearing in your iris, or a change in your pupil’s shape.
In any case, talk to your doctor if you notice new floaters in your vision.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Floaters are a common ocular symptom for individuals with multiple sclerosis, but MS isn’t a leading cause.
On their own, floaters don’t usually indicate serious conditions.
Eye conditions like optic neuritis can be an early warning sign of oncoming multiple sclerosis.
Neuritis is the swelling of the optical nerve, and shares some visual similarities to eye floaters, including smudges in vision, hazy vision, and blurred vision.
Understanding these similarities can be helpful when looking to understand what’s causing the floaters.
Due to the correlation between optic neuritis and MS, talk to a medical professional if you experience changes in your vision.
An ophthalmologist can examine your vitreous fluid and photograph any floaters.
During the exam, your doctor should be able to pinpoint the cause.
If not, further testing may be recommended.
Aging is the most contributive factor in developing eye floaters.
Medical factors that increase the risk are:
Most floaters tend to fade and become less noticeable over time.
Usually, there’s no medical need to treat vitreous floaters.
In some cases, particularly large floaters may be obstructive to vision.
A vitrectomy is an invasive ocular surgery that can minimize the appearance of larger eye floaters.
Vitrectomies consist of removing the vitreous fluids from the eye.
The fluid is then replaced with a clear saline solution to maintain proper pressure and function of the eye.
This surgical procedure involves multiple incisions to the eye and can increase the likelihood of new floaters developing.
To minimize risk, you may prefer laser vitreolysis to break up eye floaters.
This treatment is non-invasive and can be effective in the eventual dissolution of floaters.
Some qualifying factors to be eligible for the laser procedure include age and proximity of floaters to the retina.
Talk to your ophthalmologist to see if you qualify.
When to See a Medical Provider
See a medical professional any time you notice a sudden appearance of floaters.
You also do this when floaters are present with flashes of light or the appearance of shades being pulled across your peripheral vision.
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Frequently Asked Questions
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Diabetic Eye Disease. (2017).
Diabetic Retinopathy: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment (2021)
Floaters and Flashes. (n.d).
Myopia (Nearsightedness). (2020).
Optic Neuritis (2019)
Retinal detachment. (2021).
Types of eye floaters. (2022).
Vitrectomy And Vitreoretinal Eye Surgery. (2022).
Vitreous Floaters. (2022).
What Are Floaters and Flashes? (2021).
What Causes Eye Floaters? (2021).