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Seeing Spots: Flashes and Floaters

What Causes These Visual Disruptions and When to Seek Care
By Dr. Shantan Reddy

As you age, it is common to experience changes with your eyes and vision. In fact, between the ages of 45 and 80, most adults will find it increasingly difficult to see things up close, a condition called presbyopia. You may also begin to notice mild visual disruptions such as flashes and floaters. In some cases, they are caused by normal, age-related changes within your eyes. Other times, they may be a symptom of a more serious medical condition, requiring immediate attention. Ophthalmologist and retina specialist, Shantan Reddy, MD, shares symptoms to watch for and when to seek medical care.

The term “floater” refers to dark spots or strings that appear in your vision which shift when you move your eyes or when you attempt to focus. Floaters may be more noticeable when you’re looking at a solid, bright background like a wall or the sky. In some cases, floaters are harmless; however, if you experience periodic flashes of bright light that temporarily disrupts your vision, it may be a sign of a more serious issue. These visual flashes and floaters can develop due to a variety of reasons including: 

  • When the jelly-like vitreous fluid in your eyes begins to break down as you age. This occurs during a relatively common, harmless process called vitreous syneresis, starting between the ages of 55 to 60.
  • After a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD), which is another common age-related change. Unlike with vitreous syneresis, during a PVD, the vitreous actually becomes separated from the retina. PVD is not necessarily dangerous, however, in some cases, more serious complications can occur. If you experience symptoms of a PVD including larger floaters and more persistent flashes of light, it’s important to be seen by a retinal specialist as soon as possible.
  • Following a retinal tear or a retinal detachment which may develop for a variety of reasons. In some cases, with a PVD, as the vitreous gel separates, it can tear or detach the retina. It can also occur as a long-term complication of near-sightedness (myopia) or following an eye trauma or surgery.
  • Due to a hemorrhage or blood leakage within your retina. Flashes may develop if the leakage pulls on the retina and/or tears a blood vessel within your eye. Chronic health conditions such as diabetes can also weaken blood vessels over time, causing them to leak. In many cases, smaller hemorrhages will heal on their own, while larger, persistent ones may require surgery.
  • An infection or increased inflammation in your eye(s) can lead to flashes.
  • Tumors of the eye, while less common, can cause visual disruptions.

While flashes or floaters may develop due to relatively common age-related changes with your eyes, it’s important to consult with an ophthalmologist right away to determine their cause and begin treatment if needed. If left untreated, over time, minor tugging on your retina can cause a tear or complete detachment, which is considered a medical emergency. If this happens, you will need to have surgery in order to repair your retina and preserve your vision.

You shouldn’t wait for flashers, floaters or other vision changes to develop to start caring for your eyes. You can help to maintain your eye health and vision by:  

  • Following a balanced diet that includes eye-healthy nutrients like lutein, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin A. Foods rich in lutein include dark, leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish including tuna, trout and halibut. You can also boost your vitamin A intake with carrots, sweet potatoes and liver.
  • Quitting smoking. It increases your risk of developing macular degeneration as you age.
  • Receiving an annual eye exam, especially if you have a family history of an eye disease or chronic health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.
  • Washing your hands before putting in or taking out your contact lenses to reduce your risk of developing an infection.
  • Wearing protective eyewear when participating in sports, operating heavy machinery or when completing home improvement projects.
  • Wearing sunglasses whenever you are outside to protect your eyes against damaging UV light exposure.

If you notice new floaters, an increase in floaters, sudden flashes of light or darkness in your peripheral vision, you should be seen by an ophthalmologist right away. While these symptoms may be painless, they may signal a retinal tear or detachment which requires immediate attention.

If you have been experiencing changes with your vision, especially new or worsening flashes or floaters, it’s important not to delay treatment in order to preserve the health of your eyes and vision. Schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist online or by calling your preferred location.


Topics and Subtopics: Eye Care

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