Eye Spots, Flashes and Floaters

| Posted On May 21, 2013 | By:

eye care, eyesight, eye examHave you ever seen a speck or thread-like strand float across your field of vision? Many times these spots or floaters in your eyes are just an irritating consequence of aging. However, if these symptoms are new or get worse, it’s time to call your eye doctor. Read more about the symptoms, causes, and management for this common eye condition.

What are eye spots, flashes, and floaters?

Floaters are transparent spots, specks or lines that seem to move or “float” across your field of vision. They are actually small, semi-transparent or cloudy particles within the vitreous (the jelly-like fluid filling the back of the eye). They come in different shapes and sizes and can look like insects, raindrops, dark spots, cobwebs, thread-like strands, or hair.  Some move around more and others seems to be much less mobile.

What causes spots and floaters?

Floaters are flecks of protein or other matter trapped in the back cavity of the eye.  New or large floaters are frequently caused when the vitreous gel detaches from the back wall of the eyeball. Although this sounds a bit scary, this typically happens as part of the normal aging process.  Certain eye diseases or injuries can also cause floaters.

Are spots and floaters serious?

Most spots and floaters are normal, but sometimes they can indicate a more serious problem, especially if there is a sudden increase in their number or if they are accompanied by flashes of light.

What are the flashes?

Flashes are brief, lightning-like streaks or arcs of light seen in your side, or peripheral, vision that may or may not appear with spots and floaters. They are similar to what you see when a flash goes off on a camera. Each flash only lasts for a split second.  They are typically white and are more visible in the dark.  Flashes occur when the vitreous gel tugs on and pulls away from the retina (the back lining of the eye like the film in the back of a camera that receives visual images and sends them to the brain).  Every time the vitreous pulls on the retina, you will see a flash of light. After the vitreous completely separates, flashes tend to become less prominent and usually completely stop over a period of several weeks.

Another cause of flashes might be migraines. Flashes related to migraines usually last for about 15-30 minutes, tend to be colorful, shimmering, appear in both eyes simultaneously and may slowly move across your vision.  They then completely stop and may or may not be followed by a headache.

Is a vitreous detachment serious?

Vitreous detachment is very common and rarely leads to serious problems. The vitreous detaches over several weeks, and the floaters and flashes tend to become less prominent.  Sometimes, however, a vitreous detachment can cause small tears or holes in the retina. These holes can progress and cause vision loss if left untreated.

What should I do if I see spots, floaters or flashes?

If you suddenly see new spots, floaters, or flashes, if they get worse, or if you see a dark curtain progressing over your side vision, you should contact your eye doctor immediately for a complete exam. You will need a dilated examination (drops are used to make the pupil larger so the doctor can see the entire retina). This examination allows your eye doctor to determine if you have a vitreous detachment or a more serious problem like a retinal tear or retinal detachment.  The dilated exam will make your eyes light sensitive and your vision blurry for several hours.

In most cases, a sudden increase in spots, floaters, or flashes requires no treatment other than careful monitoring by your eye doctor. However, an examination is extremely important to make sure it is a vitreous detachment and not a more serious problem such as a retinal tear or retinal detachment which must be treated quickly.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Dr. Lynn Halpern

Title: Chief of Ophthalmology Joined Harvard Vanguard: 2002 Undergraduate School: McGill University, Montreal, Quebec Professional/Graduate School: Northwestern University, Evanston, IL Medical School: Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA Internship: Lahey Clinic, Burlington, MA Faculty Appointments: Brandeis University, Waltham, MA Board Certification: American Board of Ophthalmology Clinical Interests: Glaucoma; cataract; glaucoma laser and surgery

Comments

  1. I was glad to read about the retinal information. Recently I had my eyes examined at Harvard but forgot to mention the peripheral flashes- I’ll keep an eye on for it .

    Comment by June Sutcliffe on June 26, 2013 at 4:19 pm
  2. Hoping maybe I can get a question answered as I don’t know that a flash, spot or floater describes my recent problem. I have a white I almost want to call it a curtain that descends or bowes out from the outer corner of my eye, it could almost be described as a second blink because it occurs mostly right after I have blinked and it mimicks a blink as far as what I see. The color is white, not necessarily bright just white. Then it starts to come in from the top almost like someone is taking a pencil eraser pushing down across my eye, this is independent of the blink and occurs probably every few minutes. How concerned should I be about this? The area that the white ‘blink’ for lack of a better word is progressing pretty quickly, last night it was in my far peripheral now this morning it is encompassing half way across my eye.

    Comment by Jill on August 30, 2014 at 1:01 pm
  3. Hi, Jill. Per our participation guidelines, we believe your doctor or your other licensed health care providers are in the best position to assess and address your individual health care needs and if you have a personal medical question, we suggest you contact your doctor or other qualified medical professional.

    Comment by Harvard Vanguard on September 3, 2014 at 3:06 pm
  4. Hi I’ve had only maybe 4 times had this happen. I see a grayish smoky almost like speck , float in front of my eyes for a few seconds and then it is gone. I saw you said it is due from aging… I am only 21 years old. Does this sound normal? Just a little worried..

    Comment by Kailey on May 22, 2018 at 10:43 am

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *