Eye Floaters

Drifting Strands in Your Line of Sight

If you ever notice pesky dark strands that may resemble anything from a simple speck to a cobweb drifting across your vision, what you're probably seeing is what's known as a floater.

Floaters are formed when some of the vitreous (the jelly inside of your eye) clumps together. What you're actually seeing is the shadow this makes on the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.

While eye floaters are common as you get older, they usually are nothing to worry about. At other times, they may be a sign of something serious that requires immediate attention.

This article will discuss common symptoms of floaters, their causes and treatments, and when it's vital to see an ophthalmologist immediately.

Man squinting on bright clear day, may have eye floaters

RapidEye / Getty Images

Symptoms of Eye Floaters

Every floater tends to be unique in shape. You may particularly notice them on a bright clear day.

Symptoms of floaters include:

  • Spots, threads, clumps, cobwebs, or other strands in your line of sight that may be more noticeable on light backgrounds or a blank wall
  • Shapes following the movement of your eyes
  • Shapes moving across the eye even when it is still

Causes of Eye Floaters

Floaters don't just come out of nowhere. They can be caused by:

When vitreous starts to shrink with age, it can pull away from the back of the eye. This is called a posterior vitreous detachment. It is also likely to occur in those who are extremely nearsighted (can focus on near objects but objects are blurrier the farther they are away).

People who've had a cataract (cloudy lens in their eye) removed and those who have diabetes (who either don't make enough insulin to regulate sugar in the bloodstream or the cells just aren't responsive to the insulin) also are prone to getting floaters.

Floaters can occur if a posterior vitreous detachment doesn't happen cleanly, as well. During the process, a hole can form in the retina, or there can be a retinal detachment, in which the light-sensitive retina itself pulls away from the back of the eye. If blood cells are released into the vitreous jelly, that can cause new floaters.

How to Treat Eye Floaters

Commonly, ophthalmologists (physicians specializing in eye conditions) will take a wait-and-see approach with eye floaters. With time, floaters can sometimes settle in the eye out of the line of sight.

The two potential treatments that your ophthalmologist may recommend if you have floaters are:

  • YAG laser vitreolysis in which a laser is used to break eye floaters apart into much smaller, less noticeable pieces
  • Vitrectomy in which the jelly of the eye with the floaters is removed and replaced with saline solution

Complications and Risk Factors Associated With Eye Floaters

Floaters occur most often in people over age 50. Fortunately, in most cases (9 out of 10), they are not a sign of damage to the retina.

But while floaters can be totally harmless, they can also signal that something serious has happened that can threaten your sight. Symptoms to watch for include the following:

  • Many new floaters appear.
  • You see flashes that look like lightening strikes or bright spots, much like seeing stars when you hit your head.
  • You see a shadow out of the corner of your eye in what's known as your peripheral (side) vision.
  • It appears as if a curtain is suddenly covering part of your vision.

If you notice even just one of these symptoms, it's important to immediately contact your ophthalmologist or go to the emergency room. These are signs that you may have experienced a retinal tear or detachment.

The good news is that if you do have a tear or retinal detachment, this can be successfully treated surgically if it is done right away. But if you wait, it may be too late and you may permanently lose vision in the eye.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you notice any bleeding in the eye, possibly along with new floaters, you should immediately contact your ophthalmologist or visit the emergency room. If the retina is either torn or detached, you may have broken blood vessels.

Bleeding can be a sign of a vitreous hemorrhage. Blood in the vitreous can block light from reaching the retina, and vision will be poor. If there is enough blood, it may even block vision completely.

With time, a vitreous hemorrhage may clear up on its own. But in severe cases, the vitreous jelly may need to be removed and replaced with a saltwater solution.

Summary

With floaters, you may notice squiggly lines or cobwebs drifting across your visual field. These are caused by the jelly inside the eye clumping together and casting shadows on the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.

Floaters can happen with age, can simply be annoying, and often go away with time. But at other times, it can threaten your vision.

Floaters can be treated by removing and replacing the jelly inside the eye or using a YAG laser. A lot of new floaters, along with flashes of light, can indicate a retinal tear or detachment, which needs to be treated right away.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes eye floaters?

    Eye floaters occur when the jelly-like substance (vitreous) inside the eye starts to shrink due to aging. Some of the strands of vitreous may then clump together. When these strands drift across the eye, they create shadows on the retina, they are called floaters.

  • Can eye floaters cause retinal detachment?

    No. The floaters do not cause retinal detachment. However, as the vitreous in the eye shrinks, it can pull away from the retina in what is called a posterior vitreous detachment. In turn, it can cause the retina to pull away from the back of the eye in a retinal detachment.

    When a retinal detachment happens, there can be a large number of new floaters and flashes of light.

  • How can I get rid of floaters?

    Usually, floaters become less noticeable on their own as they settle out of sight. Two treatments are available if floaters become bothersome.

    A YAG laser can be applied to break the floater strands into smaller pieces. Or, a vitrectomy can be done in which the jelly is removed from the eye and replaced with saline solution.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Kellogg Eye Center. Floaters and flashes.

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  6. National Health Services. Flashes and floaters.

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  8. University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center. Vitreous hemorrhage.