Very often I get patients come into the office with one major complaint, “I’m seeing some sort of bug in my vision and I can’t get it to go away”. Sometimes they describe them as a fly, or a string, or a black spot in their vision. Usually they are most noticeable in bright lit rooms, against a white background such as paper or a wall, or on a bright and sunny day. These little items are called floaters, and they are, just as they sound, little pieces of fibres floating inside of the jelly in the eye.
While all of us generally have some floaters, new ones are much more noticeable and can be quite alarming. Eventually the floaters do settle down into the inferior part of the eye, and float back up with a jerk of your head. Floaters that have been there for a long period of time are usually ignored by the brain, who prefers to pay attention to new information only.
So where do floaters come from? Floaters can come from 3 areas of the eye. The majority of floaters, and the ones that are not dangerous, are just caused by a degeneration of the jelly that fills the eye. When we are born the jelly is thick and almost solid, but as we age it starts to degrade and liquify. During that process small pieces may break off and when these catch the light they look like floaters.
The second type of floater is a more dangerous type. These are pieces of the retina, the tissue that lines the back of the eye that allows us to see. These are caused by a weak area in the retina breaking off and the floater that you are seeing is the retina tissue instead. If not treated immediately these can cause the whole retina to detach itself off the back of they eye which can lead to blindness. These individuals will sometimes experience other symptoms such as flashes of lights or a curtain or veil in their vision, but that is not always the case.
The third type of floater, also a dangerous type but much less common, is due to a burst blood vessels inside of the eye. The floaters themselves are red blood cells floating in the jelly inside of the eye. This is more common to occur with individuals who have uncontrolled diabetes, but it can also occur if the retina has torn and it tore a blood vessels with it. Depending on the root cause of the broken blood vessel this may also require quick treatment to prevent any permanent vision loss.
Although most floaters are innocent, any new floater should be checked out by a Doctor of Optometry to rule out any tears within the retina. While most floaters disappear with time, some stay and can be very distracting or bothersome. Unfortunately, there is no procedure at this time to remove any current floaters you may have.