At Milwaukee Eye Care, we understand how alarming and frightening it can be to experience flashes and floaters in your vision. That’s why we want to make sure our patients receive the correct care needed to diagnose the cause and alleviate the issue as soon as possible.
What are floaters?
One of the most common calls we get is “I have a new squiggly line or blob in my vision”. This is what we call a floater. A floater is typically a shadow of the collagen, a jello like substance that fills the back of our eye that moves with our eye movement. This collagen is called the vitreous. The vitreous, just like all other collagen in our body, is very thick when we are born. It breaks down over time and becomes more liquefied, thins and shrinks. Therefore, we more easily see small clumps of it especially in certain high contrast lighting situations like looking at fresh white snow or a clear blue-sky day.
Often, we see new floaters when the vitreous shrinks to where it separates from the back surface of the eye, creating even more of this shadow effect. This is called a posterior vitreous detachment, or a PVD. A PVD happens typically around your 50s but can occur sooner especially if you are nearsighted. Although a PVD is benign, the floaters are often very bothersome. The perception of new floaters usually decreases in a number of weeks up to a year. At that point you may still notice their floaters occasionally but it rarely interferes with your day-to-day life.
What if I have a sudden change in floaters?
A few floaters here and there are benign, however, a sudden change in floaters needs to be assessed quickly. Rather than it being just a change to the vitreous, it could be a hemorrhage within the vitreous from a retinal hole, tear, or detachment. A hole or tear, depending on the size, can be sealed with a laser provided by a fast referral to a retina specialist. It’s important to have this sealed in a timely manner because if fluid gets beneath the hole or tear, it can turn into a retinal detachment, which is potentially blinding. A retinal detachment needs a more invasive procedure that takes a longer recovery. Depending on the extent and length of time of the detachment, it can cause permanent vision loss.
Who’s at Risk?
Patients more at risk for these retinal issues include those who are more nearsighted, those who have a family history of retinal detachments, or some systemic conditions (most notably diabetes).
Now, where do the flashes come in?
Flashes of light can appear like lightning bolts in your peripheral vision. They can also appear like someone is turning a light on and off. These come from tension on the retina. The tension physically stimulates the retina making you see light. This can happen during a PVD, from the vitreous tugging on the retina, or during hole, tear, or detachment development. If you see a sudden change in your floaters or flashes of light, it is essential to call Milwaukee Eye Care or another eye care provider immediately (even on a weekend or holiday!) to triage your symptoms as this could prevent permanent vision loss. If you are unable to reach an eye care provider for some reason, you should report to your nearest emergency room. Emergency rooms typically have an ophthalmologist on staff or on call.
Remember that seeing flashes or floaters is not always a cause for alarm, but if something appears to be changing or worsening, take immediate steps to ensure the best possible outcome for your vision.
Written by Dr. Anna Hetzer