When Should I Worry About Eye Floaters?

Eye floaters are small shapes that appear in your field of vision. They can look like cobwebs, spots, dots, squiggly lines, or threads. Floaters are usually harmless, but if you experience floaters that don’t go away and you are losing vision, you should contact an ophthalmologist or go to the emergency room.

Eye floaters seen against a blue and white sky.

Meyer & Meyer / Getty Images

What Are Eye Floaters?

Eye floaters are a normal part of aging in the eyes. There’s a jelly-like fluid in your eye called the vitreous. As you reach your 50s and beyond, small fibers from the vitreous stick together and cast shadows on the retina, which is in the back of the eye. The shadows that you see are floaters.

Harmless Symptoms of Floaters

Symptoms of floaters include:

  • Black or gray specks or dots
  • Cobwebs
  • Squiggly lines
  • Threads
  • Seeing the shapes move around
  • Seeing the shapes more frequently when you look at a plain background
  • Having the shapes go away when you try to look at them directly

What Are Flashes of Light?

Eye floaters are sometimes accompanied by flashes of light. These may look like lightning or stars. They also could look like camera flashes.

Flashes occur when the vitreous gel that is in your eye rubs or pulls on your retina. This is more common with aging. The flashes of light may occur for a few weeks or months. They tend to happen in the morning or in a dark room.

Contact an ophthalmologist right away if you experience sudden flashes of light and you have not had them before.

When to Contact a Doctor

Although eye floaters are a part of aging, it’s normal to wonder, “When should I worry about eye floaters?” Most eye floaters are harmless, but they also can indicate a sign of something more serious, including:

  • Bleeding in the eye
  • Eye infections
  • Eye injuries
  • Retinal detachment: This is when the retina is pulled away from the back of the eye.
  • Uveitis: This is an inflammation in the eye.
  • Vitreous detachment or retinal tear: A vitreous detachment happens when the vitreous pulls away from the retina. Most of the time, vitreous detachment is not vision-threatening. However, in 15% of cases, a vitreous detachment can lead to a hole in the retina, causing a retina tear.

Sometimes, floaters are confused with vision changes associated with other systemic health problems, including:

You should contact an eye doctor or an emergency room if you notice:

  • A loss of peripheral vision
  • A sudden increase in the number of floaters you have
  • Flashes of light in your vision
  • What appears to be a gray curtain affecting part of your vision

These symptoms could indicate a vision-threatening retinal detachment.

Vision Is Impeded

Any time your vision is affected, it’s important to let your eye doctor know. A change in your vision associated with floaters could indicate a retina tear or detachment.

Signs of Retina Tear or Detachment

A retina tear or retina detachment is a more serious problem that can cause eye floaters. A retina tear can rapidly turn into a retina detachment, causing loss of some of your vision. That’s why it’s important to know the signs of a retina tear or detachment and to act quickly if you have those signs.

Some signs of a retina tear or retina detachment include:

  • Many new floaters in the eye
  • 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

A retina detachment can be a medical emergency. If you experience the symptoms above, go to an eye doctor or an emergency room for care right away. Permanent vision loss or blindness is possible if the retina continues to detach and is not treated.

Treatment for Severe Floaters

Most of the time, doctors will treat the underlying cause of your eye floaters. For instance, an ophthalmologist may treat a retinal detachment that is associated with eye floaters.

If your eye floaters are severe enough to affect your ability to see in everyday life, your eye doctor may recommend treatment for them. Those treatments can include:

  • Vitrectomy: Vitrectomy is a surgery to remove the vitreous. This is done by the surgeon removing the vitreous through a small incision and then replacing it with a fluid that mimics the vitreous and helps your eye keep its shape. However, a vitrectomy doesn’t always remove all of your floaters.
  • Laser vitreolysis for floaters: With this procedure, the eye surgeon uses a special laser to break up floaters so you don’t notice them as much. This surgery has helped some patients but for others, it has not been as effective. Laser vitreolysis remains controversial because there isn’t a lot of guidance for the procedure.

A Word From Verywell

Usually, you have no reason to worry about eye floaters. However, if your vision changes or floaters become a more sudden problem, contact an ophthalmologist or go to an emergency room.

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Article Sources
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  1. Cleveland Clinic. Eye floaters & flashes.

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. Do I need to worry about floaters?

  3. National Eye Institute. Retinal detachment. Updated Sept. 22, 2020.

  4. Katsanos A, et al. Safety and efficacy of YAG laser vitreolysis for the treatment of vitreous floaters: An overview. Adv Ther. 2020 Apr;37(4):1319-1327. doi:10.1007/s12325-020-01261-w