If you’ve ever noticed shadows or dark spots floating across your field of vision, you are not alone. In most cases, these “floaters” cause no harm and are common, especially as you age. However, if you experience a sudden increase in eye floaters, you should seek immediate medical attention. According to Durga Borkar, MD, a retina specialist and retina surgeon at Duke Eye Center, a sudden increase in eye floaters may signal a retinal tear, a detached retina, or another serious medical concern that can threaten your vision.
What Are Floaters?
Floaters appear when light passes through irregular parts of the vitreous gel -- the substance that gives the eye its shape -- and casts shadows on the retina, at the back of the eye. Floaters usually occur with age, as the gel begins to change composition, and can occur sooner if you are very nearsighted. A few floaters are no cause for alarm, but suddenly seeing more can be.
When to Take Floaters Seriously
As the vitreous gel changes, it pulls away from the retina. This normal process, called posterior vitreous detachment, can be so gradual that it goes unnoticed. However, if the vitreous separates from the retina more suddenly, you may experience a sudden increase in eye floaters. A “shower” of floaters can also occur when there is bleeding or inflammation at the back of the eye from trauma, infection, or a disease such as diabetes. “If you see a noticeable increase in floaters, the best thing you can do is get into the ophthalmologist’s office right away,” Dr. Borkar advised.
Why the Hurry?
A large number of floaters can signal a hole or tear in the retina, which can lead to retinal detachment. Because there is no way to assess the extent of damage based on symptoms alone, the only way to know for sure is to see an ophthalmologist. The doctor will conduct a thorough eye exam with dilation and take a 360-degree look at the retina. If a retinal tear is diagnosed promptly, the prognosis is good and can often be managed with procedures performed in clinic. Left untreated, the tear can progress to retinal detachment and loss of vision, which often requires surgery.
Do Floaters Ever Go Away?
When the vitreous detachment is clean and gradual, any increase in eye floaters usually subsides in one to six months. An occasional floater may appear now and then, but knowing they are harmless, most people learn to live with them. If floaters impede everyday tasks like driving or reading, your doctor may in very rare cases recommend a vitrectomy. During this surgical procedure, the vitreous gel, along with the irregularities that cause floaters, is removed and replaced.
Can Floaters Be Prevented?
“People ask about eye vitamins to treat floaters, or if they should avoid sunlight, but we currently do not have a proven way to prevent vitreous changes through lifestyle changes or vitamins,” noted Dr. Borkar. She recommended that people have a dilated eye exam every one to two years to look for changes in the retina that can’t be seen or felt. More frequent exams may be advised if you have other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, which can affect the retina. This is especially important as you age and for people who are nearsighted. And of course, keep your eyes open for a sudden increase in floaters.