Pretty much everyone has noticed floaters, those sometimes-annoying little flecks that dance and dart in front of your vision, especially in bright light. Floaters occur naturally as little flecks of cellular debris located in the vitreous, the gel-like substance that’s inside your eye, just in front of your retina. Floaters can occur at any age, but as we get older, they tend to become more prevalent. That’s because the vitreous begins to slowly break down as part of the aging process.
While they may be annoying, a few floaters are generally nothing to worry about. But when floaters are prevalent or if you experience a sudden “shower” of floaters drifting across your vision, it could be a sign of a serious problem that could result in a permanent loss of vision. Here’s what you should know about floaters:
What causes floaters?
Floaters are most commonly caused when tiny pieces of debris from the vitreous break free, forming tiny specks. Over time, this vitreous debris dissolves and is absorbed by the body, but until then, it casts shadows on the retina. It’s these shadows that we actually “see,” not the actual pieces of debris. Floaters become more obvious in bright light, which causes shadows to be more pronounced. And although floaters appear to drift, they actually move very little; they only appear to move because your eye is moving, even slightly.
Sudden “showers” of floaters occur when the vitreous begins to pull away from the retina or the retina is tearing or loosening. Tears in the retina allow the vitreous to move behind it, eventually causing it to detach.
When should I be worried?
If you notice a sudden influx of large numbers of floaters, you should see your eye doctor right away. A sudden increase in the number of floaters, often accompanied by quick flashes of light or a loss of peripheral vision, can indicate a retinal detachment, which if left untreated can result in permanent vision loss. In fact, some studies have shown that men and women who experience these symptoms wind up having a retinal detachment or tear. When the retina becomes detached, the only way to preserve sight is to seek emergency care so that the retina may be reattached if possible.
How can I prevent floaters?
You can’t prevent floaters; they occur naturally as part of the life cycle of the eye. However, you can improve overall eye health, including supporting the health of your retina, by eating foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fats, by wearing sunglasses to help protect your eyes from the sun’s UV rays and by taking breaks from “close-up” work like reading or staring at a computer screen. And of course, the best way to ensure optimum eye and vision health is to schedule regular vision screenings so your doctor can identify any potential problems in their earliest, and most treatable, stages.