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Are Floaters in the Eye Dangerous?

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A blue sky with clouds with scattered lines and dots all over to simulate what it's like to have eye floaters.

There’s a name for those squiggly little lines drifting across your vision: eye floaters! Eye floaters include the grey specks, spots, and tiny clusters that float around your field of vision. Most of the time this is normal and not a reason for concern. But sometimes floaters indicate more serious ocular issues.

A few floaters are no reason to panic. Annual comprehensive eye exams help your optometrist understand the reason for your floaters. Let’s discuss when floaters are safe, and when their presence might require emergency eye care. Discuss eye floaters with your eye doctor at your next eye appointment to get a better understanding of your ocular risks and vision health. 

Understanding Eye Floaters

The spots, webs, squiggles, and lines that appear in your field of vision from time to time are all considered eye floaters. They may appear black, grey, or semi-transparent. Floaters drift somewhat randomly but usually follow your eye movements. It might seem like they lag behind each movement your eye makes.

Eye floaters may seem like they are in front of your eye, but they are actually within your eye’s structure. Your inner eye contains vitreous, a jelly-like fluid. Vitreous is translucent and allows particles to move through it, including proteins that exist in your eye. What you see are the shadows these proteins and particles make as they float throughout the vitreous.

Symptoms of Eye Floaters

The symptoms of having eye floaters are pretty straightforward. You see tiny shapes moving around your vision and identify them as floaters. Some specific characteristics can include:

  • Small grey specks and squiggles slowly move across your eye when you are looking at something
  • Spots that float away when you try to look directly at them
  • Shapes that are more noticeable against a plain bright background (like a bright sky)
  • Webs and strings that settle across your line of sight and seem to disappear

Why Do We Get Eye Floaters?

Most people experience eye floaters as they age, and this is naturally occurring. As proteins in your eye break down and the eye fluid deteriorates, eye floaters begin to show. Floating spots that seem occasional or consistent in behaviour are a normal part of ageing and not something to be alarmed about.

Some common causes of eye floaters include:

Occasionally, people are born with fibrous particles already loose in the vitreous. People who wear contact lenses may confuse particles trapped under their contacts as eye floaters.

But eye floaters may be an early signal of certain eye diseases. Annual visits to your optometrist are a chance to discuss your floaters and an opportunity to identify diseases that may be associated with specks and spots.

A optometrist's patient form with the word "floaters" written below diagnosis

When are Eye Floaters Dangerous?

Seeing a few floaters from time to time is not something to be panicked about. But a sudden increase of floaters or floaters more intense than usual can indicate a serious eye condition. These conditions may be related to your retina, including tears or detachment, and can potentially lead to vision loss when not treated immediately.

A sudden onslaught of eye floaters combined with the following symptoms should be considered a serious vision issue:

  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Very blurred vision or total loss of vision
  • Sudden and frequent flashes of light
  • Eye floaters increasing in intensity, size, and shape
  • Sudden or steady eye pain

If you are experiencing a combination of these symptoms, contact our office immediately for emergency eye care

Eye Conditions & Eye Floaters

Several eye conditions can include an increase in eye floaters as they progress. When eye floaters are new, numerous, and intensified, it’s best to have your eyes examined as a precautionary measure.

Extra eye floaters may be present with hemorrhaging and retinal tears. Floater activity and associated dangerous eye conditions can be instigated by:

  • Eye trauma
  • Eye diseases
  • Other medical conditions
  • Eye surgery complications
  • Eye, head, and facial injuries

If you have experienced any of these factors, be conscious of your eye floater activity. Contact your optometrist if floaters are becoming more prevalent or more frequent. 

Eye Floaters & Retinal Tears

The vitreous in our eyes shrinks and thins as we get older. This shrinkage can pull on the retina, sometimes leading to a retinal tear. The retina is connected to blood vessels in the eye, and when torn, it allows fluid to leak through, potentially leading to a detached retina.

Retinal tears can be successfully treated when they are dealt with early enough. An increase in eye floaters is one of the ways to identify a possible retinal tear. 

Eye Floaters & Retinal Detachment

When left unattended, a retinal tear can become a retinal detachment, completely separating the retina from the back of the eye. If this occurs, light signals are no longer received by the retina and some vision loss occurs.

Retinal detachment is associated with flashing lights and floating spots. In combination with floaters, it might feel like a curtain or veil is dropping down over your vision.

Eye Floaters & Hemorrhage

Bleeding can occur in your eye, appearing as floaters and shadows across your vision. This is known as vitreous hemorrhage. Vitreous hemorrhage is one of the most common causes of decreased vision and can be caused by diabetic retinopathy and other health complications.

If you have been diagnosed with a disease that affects your vision, pay special attention when eye floaters increase in numbers and are combined with other symptoms.

Know When Eye Floaters Matter

Eye floaters are very common and part of the ageing process for our eyes. Occasional squiggles, spots, and lines that wander around our vision are totally normal. Sudden and dramatic increases in floaters are signs of potential vision problems and should be treated immediately.Annual eye care is an ideal way to manage your ocular health and make sure your eye floaters aren’t abnormal. But if floaters start to spark up suddenly and you feel other symptoms like flashes and pain, see your optometrist right away for emergency eye care.

Written by Dr. Rod Adams

Dr. Rod Adams is a graduate of the University of Alberta and the University of California at Berkeley School of Optometry. Dr. Adams has been in private family practice since 1997. During this time, he has developed a strong interest in pediatric optometry and laser corrective surgery options.
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