The tiny specks that move across your field of vision have a name. They are called floaters. They are often more noticeable when looking at something that has a bright plain background, such as a wall or white movie screen. While typically normal, there are times that their presence is a warning sign.
Floaters are made up of tiny clumps of cells or materials inside the vitreous (the gel-like substance in the eye) which are released at the back of the eye. When you see floaters, you are actually seeing their shadows cast on the retina as light passes through the eye. Floaters appear to be constantly on the move, appearing to drift across the eye.
As stated above, floaters are very normal. As you age, floaters will become more prevalent. When floaters are accompanied by light flashes, you should seek immediate medical help.
The appearance of flashes of light could be the sign of a retinal detachment. A retinal detachment can cause permanent loss of vision if not treated quickly. A study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009 found that 1 in 7 people with the presence of floaters and flashes will have a retinal tear or detachment.
Not all flashes require medical help either. Flashes typically occur when the retina is physically touched, causing a flicker of light. Some people experience flashes when they have a blow to the head or during a migraine. Some older people who take certain heart medication may also experience flashes.
People who are nearsighted have a higher chance of having a retinal detachment than those that aren’t. This is because of the shape of the nearsighted eye being more conical than round. The higher the prescription, the greater the likelihood that a retinal detachment can occur.
There is no treatment for floaters outside of having the vitreous removed completely and replaced with saline. Thankfully, floaters and flashes are typically benign and are more of an annoyance than a hazard. If you find you are experiencing simultaneous flashes and floaters, contact your doctor or Raleigh Eye Center immediately. Your vision depends on it!