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Floaters

By

Christopher J. Brady

, MD, Wilmer Eye Institute, Retina Division, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Last full review/revision May 2021| Content last modified May 2021
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Floaters are opacities that move across the visual field and do not correspond to external visual objects.

Pathophysiology of Floaters

With aging, the vitreous humor can contract and separate from the retina. The age at which this change occurs varies but most often is between 50 and 75 years. During this separation, the vitreous can intermittently tug on the retina. The mechanical traction stimulates the retina, which sends a signal that is perceived by the brain and interpreted as light. Complete separation of the vitreous leads to an increase in floaters, which may last for years.

However, traction on the retina may create a hole (retinal tear), and if fluid leaks behind the tear, the retina may detach. Retinal detachment Retinal Detachment Retinal detachment is separation of the neurosensory retina from the underlying retinal pigment epithelium. The most common cause is a retinal break (a tear or, less commonly, a hole) (rhegmatogenous... read more Retinal Detachment may also be caused by other factors (eg, trauma, primary retinal disorders). Lightning-like flashes, common in retinal detachment, are called photopsias. Photopsias can also occur when rubbing the eyes or when looking around after awakening.

Etiology of Floaters

The most common cause of vitreous floaters is

  • Idiopathic contraction of the vitreous humor

Rare causes of floaters include intraocular tumors (eg, lymphoma) and vitritis (inflammation of the vitreous). Intraocular foreign bodies can cause floaters but usually manifest with other symptoms, such as loss of vision, eye pain, or redness.

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Evaluation of Floaters

The most important goal is to identify serious vitreous and retinal disorders. If these disorders cannot be ruled out, patients should be examined by an ophthalmologist using an indirect ophthalmoscope after pupillary dilation whenever possible. Recognizing ocular migraine is also helpful.

History

History of present illness should ascertain onset and duration of symptoms and the shape and volume of floaters, as well as whether they are unilateral or bilateral and whether they have been preceded by trauma. The patient should try to distinguish floaters from lightning-like flashes of light (as in photopsias) or jagged lines across the visual field (as in migraine). Important associated symptoms include loss of vision (and its distribution in the visual field) and eye pain.

Review of systems should seek symptoms of possible causes, such as headaches (ocular migraine) and eye redness (vitreous inflammation).

Physical examination

Eye examination should be reasonably complete. Best corrected visual acuity is measured. The eyes are inspected for redness. Visual fields are assessed in all patients. However, recognition of visual field defects by bedside examination is very insensitive, so inability to show such a defect is not evidence that the patient has full visual fields. Extraocular movements and pupillary light responses are assessed. If patients have a red eye or eye pain, the corneas are examined under magnification after fluorescein staining, and slit-lamp examination is done if possible. Ocular pressure is measured (tonometry).

Ophthalmoscopy is the most important part of the examination; it is done after dilating the pupils. To dilate the pupils, the physician first makes sure to record pupillary size and light responses, then instills drops, usually 1 drop each of a short-acting α-adrenergic agonist (eg, 2.5% phenylephrine) and a cycloplegic (eg, 1% tropicamide or 1% cyclopentolate). The pupils are fully dilated about 20 minutes after these drops are instilled. Ophthalmoscopy is done by a nonophthalmologist using a direct ophthalmoscope. An ophthalmologist does indirect ophthalmoscopy, which provides a more complete view of the retina, particularly the periphery.

Red flags

The following findings are of particular concern:

  • Sudden increase in floaters

  • Photopsias

  • Loss of vision, diffuse or focal (visual field defect)

  • Recent eye surgery or eye trauma

  • Eye pain

  • Loss of red reflex

  • Abnormal retinal findings

Interpretation of findings

Retinal detachment Retinal Detachment Retinal detachment is separation of the neurosensory retina from the underlying retinal pigment epithelium. The most common cause is a retinal break (a tear or, less commonly, a hole) (rhegmatogenous... read more Retinal Detachment is suggested by sudden increases in floaters, photopsias, or any of its other, more specific characteristics (eg, visual field defects, retinal abnormalities). Bilateral synchronous symptoms suggest ocular migraine, although patients often have difficulty deciphering the laterality of their symptoms (eg, they often interpret scintillating scotoma of the left field of both eyes as left-eyed). Loss of red reflex suggests opacification of the vitreous (eg, vitreous hemorrhage or inflammation), but it also can be caused by advanced cataracts. Loss of vision suggests a serious disorder causing dysfunction of the vitreous or retina.

Testing

Patients who require evaluation by an ophthalmologist may need testing. However, tests can be selected by or in conjunction with the ophthalmologist. For example, patients suspected of having chorioretinitis may require microbiologic testing.

Treatment of Floaters

Idiopathic vitreous floaters require no treatment. Other disorders causing symptoms are treated.

Key Points

  • Floaters by themselves rarely indicate a serious disorder.

  • Patients with any abnormal findings on examination require ophthalmologic referral.

  • If floaters are accompanied by any other symptoms (eg, persistent flashing lights, visual deficit, sensation of a moving curtain of vision loss) or develop suddenly, patients require ophthalmologic referral, regardless of examination findings.

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