You’re looking up at a clear, blue sky on a calm day, and rather than a smooth field of blue, you note tiny shadows moving around the sky, and when you try to focus on these, they coyly move in response to your eyes. These are floaters, and you may have noticed them occurring most of your life.
Commonly referred to as “seeing stars,” one form of flasher does call to mind the cartoon animations of a character who’s received a head blow. Typically, these flashers spin for a few seconds and disappear.
Both floaters and flashers can be normal, but there are also circumstances where they could be signs of a potential vision issue. In rare cases, they could point to a condition that needs urgent treatment. Let’s examine these visual phenomena in detail, including normal and abnormal instances.
Appearing as specks of dust, dots or cobwebs moving gently through your field of vision, these floaters aren’t in front of or on the surface of your eyes, but rather suspended in the fluid that fills your eyes, called vitreous. Comprised of cells and clumps of gel, what you see as floaters are actually shadows cast by the irregularities onto your retina. Like ordinary shadows, edges are indistinct, so you can never really focus on them.
Floaters are usually more obvious when you’re looking at a smooth, unadorned surface, such as an empty wall or that clear, blue sky. Your vitreous thickens with age. This, and a few other conditions, naturally contribute to the presence of floaters. Sometimes the vitreous pulls away from the back surface of your eye, causing more floaters, but this is usually temporary, and those floaters will subside. In rare, extreme cases, floaters can be substantial, requiring treatment to relieve the effects.
When eye floaters may be a problem
If you’ve seen floaters most of your life, there’s not likely an issue, particularly if eye exams confirm healthy vision. However, if you have sudden onset floaters, new shadows that appear suddenly or in quantity, see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible to rule out any serious issue.
This is doubly important if your floaters are accompanied by flashers.
Flashes of light appearing as shooting stars or lightning-like streaks can happen spontaneously, or they may accompany a head impact. It’s more common as you age, when the thickening vitreous pulls on or rubs against the retina. Flashes indicate an irritation of the retina, so these can sometimes be an indication of a more serious issue.
Other flashes that are more like heat waves or jagged lines may occur as part of a migraine. It’s possible to have these visual disturbances without headache pain, a condition called an ophthalmic headache.
When eye flashers may be a problem
Because flashers are a symptom of retina irritation, they require a thorough exam to rule out a serious cause of the irritation. Your retina can’t feel pain in a normal way, since it has photoreceptors rather than nerves.
While flashers can result from vitreous detachment, like floaters, more serious conditions that cause flashers include retinal detachment, hemorrhages of the eye, or in rare cases, tumors.
Both flashers and floaters are common, but it’s important to rule out more serious conditions that could lead to serious vision problems. Contact Paragon Eye Associates if you’ve noticed any changes to your eyesight.