Flashes and Floaters: When Do I Need to See an Eye Doctor?
There’s a good chance that like most people, you’ve experienced the occasional flash or floater within your vision. Most of the time these are not something to be concerned about as they can be a normal part of what happens within and around the retina. However, this isn’t to say that flashes and floaters are always benign. In some cases, they can be symptomatic of a more serious condition. We’ve outlined what you need to know in order to tell the difference and when it’s appropriate to see an eye doctor below.
The eye’s interior
Most of the eye’s interior is filled with a clear gel-like substance called the vitreous. There are millions of fine fibers intertwined within the vitreous that connect it to the surface of the retina.
What are floaters?
As we grow older, the fibers within the eye’s vitreous will collapse in on themselves creating small pockets of opaque material that cast small shadows on the retina. They seem little “cobwebs” or specks that float about in / out of your vision. Floaters are not something to be concerned about the majority of the time. For most people, floaters will come and go without issue.
What are flashes?
If you’ve ever experienced a sudden, quick burst of light in your visual field this is known as a flash. During a flash, fluid begins to replace the space once occupied by the shrinking vitreous. Usually, the attachments of the delicate fibers to the retina loosen and fall away without issue, creating what is known as a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). Occasionally, the process is more vigorous and actual traction is generated on the retina. This produces quick flashes of light.
PVDs can start to become more common in people aged 50 and older, and are most common in those aged 80 and older.
Can a flash or floater turn into something serious?
Yes, in cases where the vitreous fibers pull hard enough to cause a retinal tear or hemorrhage. The reason why a tear is of concern is because it is the first step toward a retinal detachment. Because of this, treatment is needed immediately in order to best preserve vision.
When do I need to see an eye doctor?
If you notice an increase in floaters and flashes, particularly if this increase is sudden, you need to contact your eye doctor immediately. Your eye doctor will perform an exam to determine if there is a more serious issue occurring and whether treatment is needed.