What Are Eye Floaters?

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Eye floaters are shapes that appear in your line of vision. They can look like dots, squiggly lines, threads, or other shapes. You notice them more when looking at a blank surface, such as a blank wall.

Eye floaters are actually small strands from a gel-like fluid in the eye called the vitreous that clump together and cause a shadow in the back of your eye. Eye floaters are a normal part of aging. They are also called vitreous floaters.

Eye floaters seen in sky

Meyer & Meyer / iStock / Getty Images

Eye Floater Symptoms

Eye floaters have a few common symptoms:

  • You see shapes that can look like black or gray dots, cobwebs, squiggly lines, or threads.
  • The shapes go away when you try to look at them directly.
  • The shapes appear to move around.
  • You see the floaters more when looking at a blank wall or a bright surface, such as a blue sky.

Flashes of Light and Eye Floaters

Some people with eye floaters also may have flashes of light, also called photopsia. The light flashes may look like:

  • A camera flash
  • Lightning
  • Stars

Flashes of light take place when the vitreous gel in your eye rubs or pulls on the retina. Like floaters, flashes of light are more common with aging. However, you should let an eye doctor know as soon as possible if you have a significant number of flashes and you have never had them before.

Signs of Complications

Although eye floaters are usually normal, they sometimes indicate a more serious vision-threatening problem, such as a retina tear or or a retina detachment.

The retina is a light-sensitive tissue that generates vision. It is possible for the retina to tear. A retina tear can turn into a retina detachment. A retina detachment is when the retina pulls away from its normal position in the back of the eye. A retina detachment can cause you to lose some of your vision.

Floaters can be a sign of a retina tear or retina detachment. However, with a retina tear or detachment, there are many more floaters than usual. Other signs of a retina tear or retina detachment
include:

  • Light flashes in one or both eyes
  • A dark shadow (also described as a gray curtain) in your peripheral vision or in the middle of your vision

You should call an eye doctor right away if you have these signs of a retina tear or retina detachment. If you can't reach an eye doctor, go to the emergency room.

Causes

The most common cause of eye floaters is aging, particularly after age 50. As the vitreous in your eye becomes smaller, strands of fluids group together and form what may look like different shapes. These are the eye floaters that you see.

Other causes of eye floaters include:

  • A retina tear
  • Blood in the eye
  • Diabetes or diabetic retinopathy
  • Inflammation in the eye
  • Recent intraocular surgery, such as cataract surgery
  • Retina detachment
  • Trauma to the eye, such as an injury

Nearsighted? You're at Greater Risk for Floaters

If you are nearsighted (meaning, you can see things close to you but objects farther away appear blurry) you are at a greater risk for eye floaters. This is because people who are nearsighted have longer eyeballs. Nearsightedness is also called myopia. You also are at a higher risk for a retina tear or detachment if you are nearsighted.

It's also possible to confuse floaters and vision changes associated with certain diseases, such as:

It's not always possible to know the cause of eye floaters. This is why you should discuss your symptoms with an eye doctor.

Diagnosis

An eye doctor will diagnose your eye floaters with the help of a dilated eye exam. During a dilated eye exam, the eye doctor will put drops in your eyes to make the pupil open wider.

Dilation helps the doctor to see the inside of your eyes and look for damage to the retina, such as a retina detachment. By seeing the back of your eyes and the vitreous, the eye doctor can better pinpoint the cause of any eye floaters.

For some patients, doctors also will perform an eye ultrasound exam. Before the ultrasound, you will receive numbing drops. Next, the eye doctor will place a wand (called a tranducer) over the front of your eyes. The sound waves from the ultrasound help to form a picture of the eye. This assists looking for damage to the retina.

An eye doctor also may take photographs of the retina as part of the diagnostic process.

Treatment

If eye floaters are not bothering you and there has been no change in how often you have them, then they don't need to be treated. However, you should let your eye doctor know if you are having eye floaters.

Most people find that their floaters decrease over a couple of months and learn to tolerate them. If eye floaters are bothering you, there are some treatment options.

Surgery

Some patients who experience eye floaters have what is called a vitrectomy. This is a surgery to remove the gel-like fluid called the vitreous. The surgeon removes the vitreous through a small incision. Next, a fluid is used that works similarly to the vitreous that helps your eye keep its shape.

Ophthalmologists try to reserve a vitrectomy only for the most bothersome cases of eye floaters. A vitrectomy won't remove all of your eye floaters. The surgery is also associated with some risks, including:

  • Cataract formation
  • Macular pucker (the formation of scar tissue over the retina)
  • Retinal tear or detachment
  • Swelling in the eye

Laser Vitreolysis for Floaters

Another treatment option less commonly used for floaters is laser vitreolysis. With laser vitreolysis, the ophthalmologist will use a laser to break apart floaters. The idea is that you will not notice the floaters as much.

For some patients, laser vitreolysis works. For others, it doesn't. Laser vitreolysis is controversial because there is not a lot of guidance available for the procedure.

A Word From Verywell

Eye floaters are a normal part of aging. They should not be a problem unless you see many of them all of a sudden. Get regular eye exams to catch problems early, and discuss any floaters you see with your eye doctor.

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Article Sources
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