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What are floaters and flashes?

Floaters are small specks or clouds moving in your field of vision, and are most commonly seen when you look at a blank wall or a clear blue sky. The floaters may drift about when you move your eyes.

In most cases, floaters are part of the natural aging process. Floaters look like cobwebs, squiggly lines, or floating bugs. While the objects appear to be in front of the eye, they are actually floating inside of the eye itself. As we get older, the vitreous (the clear, gel-like substance that fills the inside of the eye) tends to shrink slightly and detach from the retina (posterior vitreous detachment), forming clumps within the eye. What you see are the shadows these clumps cast on the retina, the light-sensitive nerve layer lining the back of the eye.

The appearance of flashing lights comes from the traction of the vitreous gel on the retina at the time of vitreous separation. Flashes look like twinkles or lightning streaks. You may have experienced the same sensation if you were ever hit in the eye and “saw stars.”

Floaters and flashes are sometimes associated with retinal tears. When the vitreous shrinks, it can pull on the retina and cause a tear. A torn retina is a serious problem. It can lead to a retinal detachment and blindness. You should see an eye doctor immediately if:

  • New floaters appear suddenly
  • You see sudden flashes of light
  • You see a grey curtain or shadow in your peripheral vision

These may be symptoms of a retinal tear or detachment.