What IS That Floating By?
Ever see a small insect or thread passing through your field of vision but couldn’t quite put your finger on it? These specks or clouds going by are often “floaters.”
Floaters are actually clumps of cells inside the vitreous portion of the eye. As we age, the vitreous (a jelly like substance which is usually transparent) changes consistency causing these floaters to form. Nearsighted people and those who have recently had eye surgery, or sustained trauma to the eye, are more likely to develop floaters.
Most floaters are harmless and often disappear as quickly as they form. However, floaters can also be a sign of something more serious such as a retinal tear or blood. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association determined that 15 percent of people presenting to the ophthalmologist with a new onset of floaters had a retinal tear.1 This is quite significant and emphasizes how important it is to have a complete eye exam when new floaters occur. Even if you have had your eyes examined for floaters previously, if you experience new floaters you should schedule another exam to see if tears may have developed.
If floaters are accompanied with flashing lights, the chance of a tear will be even higher. Flashes in the eye signify that there is traction on the retina, which would happen if there was indeed a tear. Other signs of a retinal tear include a curtain covering your vision, or blind spots.
During the eye exam your ophthalmologist will dilate your eyes and check the retina to see if there are any problems. It is wise to bring a driver to take you home because after dilation you might not feel comfortable driving.
Many patients wonder if it is possible to get rid of floaters that persist and interfere with clear vision. A vitrectomy, a surgery that cleans out the vitreous, can help eliminate floaters; however, in most cases this surgery is too risky. New laser technology, laser vitreolysis, is showing great promise in eliminating floaters that have remained for many months; however, this technology is not yet readily available.
There are no medications or eye drops that help to reduce or eliminate floaters. While seeing a floater can cause a scare, most of the time they will disappear as the brain learns to ignore them.
Dr. Wallace Goldban is a board-certified ophthalmologist specializing in Lasik surgery and cataract removal. He has over 20 years of experience and is a graduate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He has office locations in Palm Springs and Palm Desert and can be reached at (760) 320.8497.
Reference: 1) Hollands H, Johnson D, Brox AC, Almeida D, Simel DL, Sharma S. Acute-onset floaters and flashes: is this patient at risk for retinal detachment? JAMA. 2009 November 25;302(20):2243-9.