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Pause for a moment and think about your vision. Are you someone who’s worn glasses or contacts most of your life? Have you been lucky enough not to need vision aids? Because you’ve used your eyes every day of your life, you know your sense of sight better than anyone else. Your familiarity with your own eyes makes you the best person to notice small changes in your vision.

Now take a quick moment to consider the following questions. Do you have tiny black spots or lines in your eyes? Do those shapes follow your eyes as you look around but resist being focused on directly? Do those dots or squiggles become especially prominent when you look at a blank, bright surface, like a white sheet of paper or the clear, blue sky?

If those symptoms sound familiar, you have likely developed floaters. Read on to learn about what these small changes in your vision mean for your eyesight.

Why Do Floaters Occur?

In most people, floaters are a natural part of the aging process. They develop when the liquid in your eye, known as vitreous, shrinks and changes consistency over time. The cells in vitreous fluid clump together as it shrinks, and those clumps create tiny shadows that look like they’re sitting at the front of your eye. In reality, these clumps float around inside your eye, which explains why they move around.

Eventually, most age-related floaters, like those described above, will sink to the bottom of your eye and out of your field of vision. These floaters occur in almost everyone, but if you have diabetes or nearsightedness or you underwent a cataract operation, you may have a higher occurrence of floaters.

Age-related floaters usually only show up a few at a time, and they typically aren’t accompanied by other symptoms. They seem annoying, especially at first, but they are benign and shouldn’t cause you to worry.

What Symptoms Could Mean Floaters Are More Serious?

Less commonly, floaters indicate more serious vision issues. Other symptoms usually accompany these floaters, such as:

  • A large number of floaters appearing in a short time
  • A loss of peripheral vision
  • Unexplained flashes of light, especially in your peripheral vision

These symptoms could be early signs of significant changes within the eye, so you should make an appointment with an eye doctor as soon as possible if you notice these symptoms.

At your appointment, make sure to mention these symptoms and provide an approximate timeline for when they started. An optometrist can take a closer look at your eyes, determine what problems affect your vision, and recommend treatment.

Your eye doctor looks to see if your floaters have developed due to one of the following conditions.

Posterior Vitreous Detachment

Vitreous fluid rests in the back of your eyes. It occupies the large open space behind the cornea and lens. As noted above, vitreous fluid shrinks over time. In some people, as this shrinkage occurs, the vitreous fluid makes less contact with the retina, a vision center on the back of the eye. This decrease in contact is called posterior vitreous detachment.

According to a study published in the medical journal Ophthalmology, posterior vitreous detachment is the reason for a sudden appearance of floaters or flashes of light in about 40 percent of patients who report those symptoms. An eye doctor diagnoses posterior vitreous detachment by performing a dilated eye exam.

Most cases of posterior vitreous detachment are not serious and do not cause long-term sight problems.

Retinal Tears

Sometimes when the vitreous fluid pulls away from the retina, the force strains the retina and creates tears or holes. According to the same study cited above, retinal tears occur in about nine percent of patients.

Retinal tears are more serious and can have long-term effects on eyesight. They are one reason you should have your vision checked immediately if you notice the symptoms in the bulleted list above.

Ophthalmologists may use lasers or a special freezing treatment to seal holes in torn retinas. These treatments cause minimal discomfort and can be done in the eye doctor’s office.

Retinal Detachment

Retinal tears often lead to a more serious eye problem called retinal detachment. This problem develops when vitreous fluid passes through the retinal tear. The fluid builds up behind the retina and separates it from the underlying tissue. A detached retina cannot properly focus light, so vision becomes blurry, and blindness can eventually occur.

In patients with retinal detachment, eye surgery is necessary to preserve vision. Many surgeries for retinal detachment take place in an operating room, but some can be performed at an ophthalmologist’s office. The American Academy of Ophthalmology reports that these surgeries have an 80 to 90 percent success rate.

Should You Worry About Floaters?

Although floaters can be bothersome, in most people they aren’t cause for concern. You can make sure the floaters in your eyes are not problematic by watching for the extra symptoms listed above and by making regular visits to an eye professional.

Remember to take care of your sight between eye appointments too. Wear your glasses or contacts as directed, and protect your eyes with sunglasses. Watch for sudden changes in your vision, and consult with an eye care professional if you notice any.