Eye floaters are specks or strings that appear to move through a person's field of vision but do not correspond to external objects. Floaters are common.
Eye floaters result when something besides light from the environment stimulates the retina, which is the light-sensing structure at the back of the eye. This stimulation causes the retina to send a signal to the brain. The brain may interpret the signal as an apparent object floating in the field of vision (floater) or as a simple, sudden flash of light that can look like lightning, spots, or stars (photopsia). Photopsias can occur when the eyes are rubbed. The most common cause of eye floaters is
Between about age 50 to 75 years, the vitreous humor shrinks and tugs on the retina from time to time. These tugs stimulate the retina, giving the illusion of light or objects, seen as floaters. Such floaters (idiopathic vitreous floaters) are not harmful. Less often, the vitreous humor pulls completely away from the retina (vitreous detachment).
Less common but more serious causes include
Sometimes migraines cause vision symptoms. These vision symptoms may be white, jagged flashing lines that appear first in the middle of the field of vision and then spread across the entire field of vision (not single objects like floaters). They typically then resolve over about 20 minutes, disappearing first from the peripheral field of vision and last from the center of the field of vision. People may not have a headache with them. These symptoms are called ocular or retinal migraine. People can also have similar symptoms or lose vision in part of an eye for about 10 to 60 minutes, often before a migraine headache begins (called migraine aura). In these cases, symptoms are caused by a phenomenon in the brain, not in the retina.
Tumors (for example, lymphoma) of the eye are rare causes of floaters. Foreign objects in the eye can cause floaters but usually cause other symptoms, such as vision loss, eye pain, or eye redness, that are more troublesome than floaters.
Not every instance of eye floaters requires an immediate evaluation by a doctor. The following information can help people decide when a doctor's evaluation is needed and help them know what to expect during the evaluation.
In people with floaters, certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern. They include
When to see a doctor:
Although most often floaters are not serious, people who have warning signs should see an eye doctor right away. They may have a serious vitreous or retinal disorder, and waiting a few days, or sometimes even hours, may lead to a permanent loss of vision. People without warning signs who have begun to notice a few floaters should see a doctor when practical although a delay of a few days or more is unlikely to be harmful. People who have had floaters for some time and have no other symptoms should have an eye examination at some point, but timing is not critical.
What the doctor does:
Doctors first ask questions about the person's symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause of the floaters and the tests that may need to be done (see Table 2: Symptoms of Eye Disorders: Some Causes and Features of Eye Floaters).
Doctors ask the person to describe the floaters and then ask
The eye examination is the most important part of the physical examination. Doctors check sharpness of vision, eye movements, and the pupil's response to light. They also check the eyes for redness and the visual field for areas of vision loss.
Ophthalmoscopy is a most important part of the eye examination. Doctors first use drops to dilate the pupils. Then they use an ophthalmoscope (a light with magnifying lenses that shines into the back of the eye) to examine the inside of the person's eyes, including as much of the retina as possible (ophthalmoscopy). If one of the serious causes of floaters seems possible, ophthalmoscopy is repeated by an ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the evaluation and treatment (surgical and nonsurgical) of eye disorders.
Pressure in the eye (intraocular pressure) is measured after a drop of anesthetic is put into the eye.
Doctors put a drop of fluorescein stain in the eye and then use a slit lamp (an instrument that enables a doctor to examine the eye under high magnification) to examine the entire eye.
Doctors can often identify less serious causes during an examination, but if a serious disorder seems possible, doctors refer people to an ophthalmologist to make a diagnosis. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialize in the evaluation and treatment (surgical and nonsurgical) of eye disorders. The ophthalmologist does more detailed ophthalmoscopy and may order testing. For example, for vitreous inflammation due to infection, testing to identify organisms suspected of causing infection may be needed.
Vitreous contraction floaters require no treatment.
Sometimes if a person has many floaters that interfere with vision, doctors may use a hollow needle to remove the vitreous humor from the eye and replace it with salt water. This surgical procedure is called vitrectomy. However, many doctors think vitrectomy should not be done for floaters because the procedure may cause detachment of the retina or cataracts and sometimes afterwards, floaters remain.
Other disorders causing symptoms are treated. For example, surgery is done to repair a detached retina. Antimicrobial drugs are used for infections causing vitreous inflammation.
Last full review/revision August 2012 by Kathryn Colby, MD, PhD