What are eye floaters and should you be worried about them?

Mar 19, 2021
Eye floaters are considered a normal part of the ageing process. Source: Getty.

It can be quite concerning to see something floating around in your eye, but eye floaters (also known as just ‘floaters’) are often a normal part of the ageing process. They can look like spots, weblike lines or grey specks, and are usually harmless, but in some cases can become something more serious.

We spoke to leading optometrist Darrell Baker, owner of BullCreek Optometrist, to learn more about the commonly known – but not commonly talked about – eye condition.

What are eye floaters?

Put simply, eye floaters are spots in your vision. They’re very common and are considered a normal part of the ageing process. Floaters 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.

People who are nearsighted, have diabetes, or have had a cataract operation are at greater risk of developing floaters. Age is also a major risk factor.

They occur when the jelly-like substance that fills the centre of the eye (known as the vitreous) starts to shrink, creating these small particles.

“So the floaty bits are essentially little bits of debris from the jelly-like fluid in your eye,” Baker explains. “The shrinkage causes [the] gel to pull away from the retina and for most people that process is fairy benign and innocuous – it doesn’t create any problems.”

An eye infection, inflammation (known as uveitis), haemorrhaging, or injury to the eye can also cause floaters. But they shouldn’t be confused with a more severe condition that can look similar: a detached or torn retina.

Baker says that in some people, when the jelly-like substance peels away from the retina, it can either tear or detach, which is a very serious problem and should be tended to by an ophthalmologist, not an optometrist, immediately. It’s important to remember that the vitreous shrinks over time, so if you suddenly have more floaters than normal or are experiencing flashes (bursts of lights across your field of vision), that could be an indicator of either a retinol tear or a detachment.

“Detachments can progress very rapidly towards the centre of the retina where your macular is – that’s the centre of the eye – and if your macular becomes detached, the chances of you regaining functional vision, even after surgery, is much reduced,” Baker explains.

Eye floater treatment

There are only three ways of dealing with regular floaters: you can ignore them, have laser treatment (vitreolysis), or have surgery (vitrectomy). “If the floater is very, very thick and dense and easy for the surgeon to focus on, they can be treated with laser,” Baker explains. “Effectively, what the laser does is blast the floater into much, much smaller pieces.”

However, if the floater is particularly annoying or obstructive to your vision, Baker says your ophthalmologist may then recommend a vitrectomy. He says that basically the surgeon will remove some of jelly-like substance from within the eye and replace it with an artificial liquid.

The surgery carries risks, including the possibility you’ll develop cataracts or your retinas will become detached, so it’s only recommended for severe cases where the vision is seriously impaired. If the floaters are “not obstructing the vision or highly bothersome, it [the surgery] won’t be done unless it’s really necessary,” Baker concludes.

If you are concerned or bothered by your floaters, you should ask your doctor to check them out.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

Do you have floaters? Are they bothersome, or have you learnt to live with them?

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