“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s an….eye floater?” Ever looked up at the sky and seen a variety of spots, specks and webs that drift about aimlessly? These are eye floaters and everyone gets them. They are rarely a cause for alarm but in some rare cases they can indicate a more serious condition.

How we get them

Many people think eye floaters are simply dust that gets in your eyes, but this is not the case. Most floaters are tiny pieces of the vitreous, the gel-like part of the eye between the retina and the lens. As we age, the vitreous begins to dissolve and liquefy and particles will occasionally float around in the center. And what you’re seeing isn’t the particles themselves but shadows of the particles on the retina. It’s easiest to see them if you look directly at a bright sky or a white wall. You’ll notice the little guys never like to stay still and drift out of your visual field when you try and focus on them. This is because they move when your eye moves.

More serious causes

In rare circumstances, eye floaters can be a sign of something more serious. Inflammation in the back of the eye, eye tumors, diabetic retinopathy, bleeding in the eye, and a torn retina can all cause eye floaters. Migraine headaches also can cause a unique form of eye floaters.

When to call a doctor

Contact your eye doctor if you notice any of the following, which could be indications of a retinal tear and/or retinal detachment–a condition that can result in permanent vision loss.

  • A sudden onset of new floaters
  • An excessive amount of floaters
  • Flashes of light
  • Peripheral vision loss
  • Areas of darkness
  • Eye pain along with the floaters

Eye floaters can also occur after eye surgery or trauma, in which case you should contact your eye doctor. If you are concerned about eye floaters, write down your symptoms, make a list of your current medications and see your doctor. Your doctor may dilate your eyes to see what is going on at the back of your eyes. Treatments include laser therapy or removal of the vitreous, though both of these are used infrequently.

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