How to know whether 'floaters' are a sign of a serious eye condition

'Floaters' are usually a normal sign of ageing, but they can indicate a more serious condition. Source: Getty

Experience, knowledge, and knowing there’s no point in sweating the small stuff are among the many upsides of getting older. But annoying little health issues are among the downsides, and ‘floaters’ are one of them.

Floaters is one of many words for the specs that sometimes appear to float across your field of vision – they can look like strings, specks, blogs, cobwebs or shadows – that can become less severe or even disappear over time, or remain and become distracting to the point they interfere with your ability to see properly.

But they shouldn’t be confused with a more serious condition that can look similar – a detached or torn retina. Harvard Health explains how to tell the difference between the two.

Floaters

Floaters are caused when the jelly-like substance that fills the centre of the eye (its real name is the vitreous) starts to form blobs, which may end up moving to block some of the light coming into your eye.

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They’re very common and are considered a normal part of the ageing process. People who’re nearsighted, have diabetes, or have had a cataract operation are at greater risk of developing floaters.

There are currently only two ways of dealing with regular floaters: you can ignore them, or have surgery. But the surgery carries risks, including the possibility that you’ll develop cataracts or your retinas will become detached, so is only recommended for severe cases where the vision is seriously impaired.

Some ophthalmologists also treat floaters with laser, but Harvard Health notes that this isn’t appropriate for all types of floaters, and there isn’t solid evidence about the safety of the treatment.

Detached or torn retina

A detached or torn retina can also cause floaters, but they usually appear as a sudden “shower”, Harvard Health says. It it can cause you to see flashing lights, suffer a loss of peripheral vision, or what appears to be curtain coming over your vision. This is a serious condition that you should seek immediate help for, either from your doctor or an ophthalmologist, not an optometrist.

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If left untreated, it can cause permanent damage to your vision within days.

Harvard Health says people with a family history of retinal tears or detachment, are older,  nearsighted, have had eye surgery, or have recently had floaters diagnosed as being caused by the vitreous freeing itself from the retina, are at a greater risk of detached or torn retina.

An eye infection, inflammation (known as uveitis), haemorrhaging, or injury to the eye can also cause floaters

If you’re suffering any of these symptoms or are concerned by your floaters, you should ask your doctor to check them out.

Do you have floaters? Are they annoying or have you learned to live with them?