Our eyes change as we age. Some of us need prescription eyeglasses starting in childhood or young adulthood. Eventually—as we approach age 40—our close-up vision blurs and we need bifocals. By the time we reach age 60, we may notice flashers and floaters in our vision. Often harmless, flashers and floaters can be alarming and may mean it’s time for an eye exam.
UR Medicine ophthalmologist Dr. David Kleinman offers insight (pun intended) into these visual phenomena.
Health Matters: What are flashers and floaters?
Kleinman: People who experience floaters say they see a variety of small shapes, such as dots, circles, lines, veils or cobwebs, moving just in front of their face. They can be distracting or annoying.
The source of these symptoms is actually inside the eye. Floaters are protein and collagen particles or, occasionally, blood, in the vitreous—the gel-like fluid that fills the back part of the eye. The vitreous plays a role in the development of the eye and is transparent in youth, but it changes in structure as the eye ages. These changes can lead to flashers and floaters. In the case of floaters, tiny opaque fragments in the vitreous are noticeable as they move or swirl just in front of the retina.
Flashers are perceived when the vitreous pulls on the retina. The retina doesn’t have pain fibers, but vitreous traction stimulates photoreceptors, which may cause people to experience the sensation of seeing lights flashing.
Health Matters: Are they common?
Kleinman: Yes, in fact most people eventually develop floaters, and probably a quarter of people in their 50s and 60s report experiencing flashers at some point. Fortunately, flashers usually resolve spontaneously, and the brain learns to filter out the floaters so people become unaware of them after a few months.
Health Matters: Are they ever a sign of something serious?
Kleinman: Most times flashers and floaters aren’t a problem. However, the sudden onset of flashing light or floaters may signal a retinal tear or an early retinal detachment. These are serious, vision-threatening situations.
If you develop new flashers or floaters, it’s time to call your primary care physician or eye care provider.
David Kleinman, M.D., M.B.A., is a retinal specialist with UR Medicine’s Flaum Eye Institute. Fellowship trained in vitreoretinal surgery, he studies new therapies for the treatment of retinal diseases. To make an appointment, call (585) 273-3937.