If you’ve ever seen what looks like shadowy blobs or cobwebs drifting across your vision, you’ve experienced “floaters”. While most floaters are harmless and are a natural part of the aging process, some floaters can be a symptom of a potentially serious condition that needs immediate medical attention.
What are floaters?
Your eye is a hollow ball full of a fluid called the vitreous. When we’re born, the vitreous has the consistency of a gel. But as we get older, the vitreous starts to dissolve and liquefy, which creates a watery center in the middle of the eye. When this happens, some parts of the gel-like vitreous can break free and start to float in the watery center. These pieces, which are called "floaters", can take many sizes and shapes, including specks, strings, or “cobwebs”. They usually move around as your eye moves and may seem to dart away when you try to look directly at them. They may also continue to drift when your eye stops moving.
When you see these floaters in your vision, you are not seeing the specks of vitreous, but are actually seeing the shadow of the speck as it crosses the light receptors in the retina which is located on the back wall of the inside of the eye. In most cases, floaters are a part of the natural aging process. While they may be annoying, they are usually harmless and most people who have them learn to ignore them over time.
When should I worry about floaters?
If you see a few occasional floaters, there is little cause for worry. But if you see a sudden shower of floaters, which may also be accompanied by flashes of light in your eye, you should get medical attention right away. A large group of floaters that appears suddenly could be caused by the retina pulling away from the back of the eye. When this happens, the retina loses its connection to the blood, nutrients, and oxygen that are necessary to keep it healthy. A retinal tear or detachment should be considered an emergency and should be examined by an eye care professional as soon as possible.