Eye Floaters: What you need to know about them


  • What are eye floaters?

  • Why do people notice an eye floater?

  • What do eye floaters look like?

  • What are the causes of eye floaters?

  • How common are eye floaters?

  • What are the risk factors for developing eye floaters?

  • Are eye floaters dangerous?

  • What types of health care professionals treat eye floaters?

  • How do health care professionals diagnose eye floaters?

  • Do eye floaters go away?

  • What is the treatment for eye floaters?

  • Can medication help to remove eye floaters?

  • Can surgery remove eye floaters?



What are eye floaters?

“Eye floaters” can be more accurately described as condensations or deposits present in the vitreous layer of the eyes; more accurately, the posterior part of the eyes. People often describe them as spots or blots in their vision that seem like cobwebs or blurry pigments that sort of “float” with their vision. Eye floaters may occur in one or both eyes at the same time or may appear at different points.


Why do people notice an eye floater?

The eye is such that the anterior part consisting of the lens and the cornea functions to direct and focus light rays on the light-sensitive retina where the image of the objects in view are formed. This is the principle that governs seeing objects and identifying them.

As the light journeys from the anterior part of the eye towards the retina, it passes through the vitreous humor, which is jelly-like materials that protect the spherical shape of the eye and bathes the posterior part of the eye with nutrients and oxygen.

Typically, during birth and early childhood, the vitreous body is clear, transparent, viscous, and gelatinous. However, as we age, pockets and deposits begin to emerge in the gel, which in turn changes the consistent density of parts of the liquid. Now when light rays travel through them as usual, they cast a grey or dark image or shadow right on the retina, and this is what the subject observes as the floating “cobwebs.” Since these pockets are present in a fluid medium, they sort of move around with the movement of the head and that of the eyes; they are not stationary but moves with the vitreous humor of the eyes.



What do eye floaters look like?

The appearance of floaters is usually different in individuals and often appears in various shapes, sizes, lengths, and shades. They are often seen as specks or spots in vision, “visible” blind spots, curved or straight lines, long or short strings or strands; they may also give the shape of a letter such as appearing like a “c” or an “o.” Another significant thing is the fact that they may appear to have branches or to sort of spiral from one shape into another. Also, they can look in different shades at different times or even at the same time, depending on the thickness of the pocket. They can be seen as various shades of grey or even completely black.

Within an individual eye, the density of floaters may make them show up in a certain intensity of light and to disappear in some completely. Patients often report not to notice the floaters when they enter bright light or looking at the clear sky. Also, as a general principle of physics, when there is reduced illumination, floaters become unnoticeable.

Some have compared the unique appearance of floaters to that of fingerprints. No two people can have the same appearance of floaters, and no one floater is precisely like the other. If they appear in both eyes, the floaters within one eye will still be very different from that of the other eye. Also, the same floater may not necessarily remain the same size, shape, and shade; it may seem to evolve and change appearance with time.

It is also important to note that patients will not see floaters when they blink when they close their eyes or when they are in a dark place. As long as light entering the eyes are not strong enough to make out details of the surrounding, the floaters are most likely not going to be seen.


What are the causes of eye floaters?

Floaters can appear in pathological conditions but are also usually there as a result of age and are not symptomatic of any acute eye defects or ailments. This is why it is vital to check out floaters when they appear.

Floaters may appear in any eye condition that affects the clarity and the consistency of the vitreous humor. The fact is that with age, one of the parts of the eyes that begins to change is the vitreous humor. Some parts of the gel become liquified and get “trapped” within the more viscous gel as less dense pockets or spots, a situation described as vitreous syneresis. Sometimes, the collagen fibers within the vitreous gel become thicker and denser as one age and may also present as floaters within the eyes. Note that floaters are more likely to show up when a person is over the age of fifty years. However, the changes to the eye and the type of floaters noticed vary with individuals.

Another condition that may lead to the presence of floaters in the eyes is called posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). As the patient ages, the vitreous layer of the eye often shrinks and moves forward within the space of the eye. The vitreous layer is attached to the retina and the optic nerve and may be released form either or both of these attachments and sort of floats into the fluid-filled part of the humor. This form of detachment is often seen as large circular floaters or as multiple floaters.

Also, as the vitreous layer detaches itself from the eye, it can cast its shadow right on the retina, which in turn produces large eye floaters that appear darker in shade than those formed by pockets in the vitreous humor. It is important to note that PVD is different from retinal detachment and occurs in more than 50% of people who are 65 years old and above. Also, PVD often develops within both eyes within 18 months of each other after the onset in one eye.



image credit:optivisioneyecare.com


Also, while PVD and vitreous syneresis are normal and lead to floaters in the eyes with age, there are some abnormalities of the eyes that may lead to the formation of floaters. These conditions include but are not limited to diabetic retinopathy, retinal tear, and hemorrhage into the vitreous humor. Also, any inflammation, blunt force injury or penetration, noninfectious uveitis, and even surgery may lead to the formation and the progression of floaters in the eyes.


How common are eye floaters?

Floaters are often unusual for people under the age of seventeen years except in disease conditions. However, it is widespread in adults are may not necessarily be the symptom of a disease. Almost everyone who is seventy years and older has some floaters in at least one eye. The presence of floaters is a leading symptom that forces people to see an ophthalmologist.



What eye diseases are associated with eye floaters?

While floaters can appear in perfectly normal people, especially adults, floaters often appear abnormally in diabetic retinopathy, retinal detachment, retinal tear, eye injury, and often after surgery, especially to remove cataracts. Also, inflammatory diseases such as tuberculosis, syphilis, retinal necrosis, and sarcoidosis may present floaters along with their classic symptoms. Tumors such as leukemia and lymphoma may be associated with eye floaters but are usually not very common.


What are the risk factors for developing eye floaters?

Yes, there are risk factors that can often predispose someone to develop floaters earlier than normal. An increase in age is a clear risk factor and vary in individuals. Being shortsighted or nearsighted is a factor that can lead to the development of floaters earlier in life. This is as a result of the accelerated process of posterior vitreous detachments and vitreous syneresis occurring at a much younger age in people who have significant shortsightedness (myopia). Another risk factor is diabetes as a result of the increased possibility of diabetic retinopathy. Also, injury to any part of the eye can significantly increase the risk of floaters in the eyes.


Are eye floaters dangerous?

No, at least not in or by themselves. Floaters are not dangerous in themselves but can be potent pointers of a potentially dangerous condition. A large percentage of floaters occur due to the effect of age on the eyes. However, the sudden appearance of floaters requires a visit to the ophthalmologist as soon as possible to make sure there are no associations to eye damage or some systemic disease.


What types of health care professionals treat eye floaters?

The two main health care professionals that deal with floaters and every other form of eye defect and abnormalities are the ophthalmologists and the optometrists. The ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specializes in eye care and is a full medical doctor. The optometrist, on the other end, is a doctor of optometry (O. D) and is not to be confused with a medical doctor (M. D). These are the two major eye care professionals that can diagnose and advise on the presence of floaters and recommendations for a plan of action. For the safety of your eyes, do not go on self-diagnosis or self-medication for eye floaters or any other form of eye defect, as this may compromise the integrity and the general health of the eyes.



How do health care professionals diagnose eye floaters?

While there may be a slight difference in individual approach, the doctor will often start diagnosis with a couple of questions about the floaters. He or she would then proceed to do some physical examination of the eyes with a slit lamp and check the patient’s peripheral and central vision while asking questions to determine what the patient is seeing or not seeing. The doctor may proceed to use an ophthalmoscope to check the eyes. However, before conclusions are drawn, the eye care professional may recommend further tests and laboratory procedures to rule out underlying causes.


Do eye floaters go away?

Floaters die a “natural death” as long as they are not symptomatic of bigger problems; they tend to reduce in size and density over time. Shrinkage and reduction in viscosity of floaters reduce the shadows they cast on the retina and makes it easier for the eye to deal with their presence more effectively. However, the most crucial aspect is that the human brain builds a form of adaptation to their presence, and they cease to be an issue even if they are still present. The process of the neuroadaptation overshadows the feeling of unrest that comes with the appearance of eye floaters in the first place.


What is the treatment for eye floaters?

While the possibility of generally accepted treatment procedures is still being debated, there is no current safe and completely proven cure for the symptoms of eye floaters, which are a result of vitreous syneresis and posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). The floaters will fade over a long period of time, and the patient will get used to them too.


Can medication help to remove eye floaters?

There have been claims of the effectiveness of certain herbs and supplements in the treatment of floaters. However, there is no documented scientific evidence to validate these claims. Recent research with clinical trials has proven that these claims are not scientifically verifiable, at least for the time being. If the floaters are as a result of infections, inflammations, or some other systemic diseases, treatment of such conditions may result in the disappearance of floaters over a period of time.


Can surgery remove eye floaters?

It is very important to pay attention to this moment. In the past, there were no effective and safe methods of dealing with vitreous floaters. However, recent developments point to the emergence of YAG laser treatment that promises effectiveness and safety and is being acclaimed by a couple of top ophthalmologists. It is worthy to note that there are still concerns over the long-term effects of such trailblazing methods as they are not conventional, and there will not be any conclusive evidence of long-term safety at least in the nearest future. We will need time to prove that there is nothing risky about the new treatment.


Apart from YAG laser surgeries, complete or partial vitrectomy is also an option. However, it is not the best except there are other eye abnormalities apart from floaters that require such decisive actions.

Please note that any form of surgery on the eye carries a significant risk of further damage to the eye as a direct result of the surgery and indirectly by the formation of cataracts afterward.

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