Floaters are little "cobwebs" or specks that float about in your field
of vision. They are small, dark, shadowy shapes that can look like spots,
thread-like strands, or squiggly lines. They move as your eyes move and
seem to dart away when you try to look at them directly. They do not follow
your eye movements precisely, and usually drift when your eyes stop moving.
In most cases, floaters are part of the natural aging process and simply
an annoyance. They can be distracting at first, but eventually tend to "settle" at
the bottom of the eye, becoming less bothersome. They usually settle below
the line of sight and do not go away completely. Most people have floaters
and learn to ignore them; they are usually not noticed until they become
numerous or more prominent. Floaters can become apparent when looking at
something bright, such as white paper or a blue sky.
Floaters occur when the vitreous, a gel-like substance that fills about
80 percent of the eye and helps it maintain a round shape, slowly shrinks.
As the vitreous shrinks, it becomes somewhat stringy, and the strands can
cast tiny shadows on the retina. These are floaters.
Floaters are more likely to develop as we age and are more common in people
who are very nearsighted, have diabetes, or who have had a cataract operation.
There are other, more serious causes of floaters, including infection,
inflammation (uveitis), hemorrhaging, retinal tears, and injury to the
Sometimes a section of the vitreous pulls the fine fibers away from the
retina all at once, rather than gradually, causing many new floaters to
appear suddenly. This is called a vitreous detachment, which
in most cases is not sight-threatening and requires no treatment. However,
a sudden increase in floaters, possibly accompanied by light flashes or
peripheral (side) vision loss, could indicate a retinal detachment. A
retinal detachment occurs when any part of the retina, the eye's light-sensitive
tissue, is lifted or pulled from its normal position at the back wall of
the eye. A retinal detachment is a serious condition and should always
be considered an emergency. If left untreated, it can lead to permanent
visual impairment within two or three days or even blindness in the eye.
Those who experience a sudden increase in floaters, flashes of light in
peripheral vision, or a loss of peripheral vision should have an eye care
professional examine their eyes as soon as possible.
For people who have floaters that are simply annoying, no treatment is
recommended. On rare occasions, floaters can be so dense and numerous that
they significantly affect vision. In these cases, a vitrectomy, a surgical
procedure that removes floaters from the vitreous, may be needed. A vitrectomy
removes the vitreous gel, along with its floating debris, from the eye.
The vitreous is replaced with a salt solution. Because the vitreous is
mostly water, you will not notice any change between the salt solution
and the original vitreous. This operation carries significant risks to
sight because of possible complications, which include retinal detachment,
retinal tears, and cataract. Most eye surgeons are reluctant to recommend
this surgery unless the floaters seriously interfere with vision.
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