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Spots in your vision? Why you have eye floaters and what to do about them

Madeline Kennedy,Benjamin Bert   

Spots in your vision? Why you have eye floaters and what to do about them
  • Eye floaters are small dark spots or wisps that move slowly across your vision.
  • They are most often caused by aging, and many people get them after the age of 50.

You may have noticed small dark spots in your vision when you look at a white wall or background. These spots, called eye floaters, are common — about seven in ten people will experience them at some point.

Most of the time, floaters are more annoying than dangerous, and are a normal symptom of getting older. But in some cases, eye floaters can be a sign of a more serious condition like a retinal tear or inflammatory disease.

Here's what you need to know about eye floaters and when you should see a doctor.

What is an eye floater?

Eye floaters generally appear as black or gray shapes that float or move slowly across your vision. But there are several different ways they can show up, including:

  • Small, dark shapes that may look like a spot, small specks or wispy strings.
  • Shapes that often stay in the periphery of your vision and move along with your eye movements.
  • Shapes that may float gradually downward or sideways out of your field of sight.
  • Shapes that may show up more clearly when you look at a white or brightly lit background.

Eye floaters are most common in older adults, and most people get them after the age of 50.

This is because as you get older, your vitreous — which is the jelly-like substance that fills the eyeball — starts to shrink. When this happens, clumps or strings may form inside the vitreous.

When light comes into your eye, these clumps or strings cast shadows onto a layer at the back of your eye, called the retina, and show up in your vision as floaters.

Eye floater treatment

In many cases, you don't need any treatment for eye floaters and they may even go away on their own.

"With time, floaters can resolve, either by dissolving, settling out of the way, or the person getting used to them and ignoring them," says Dr. Shameema Sikder, a professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University.

If floaters are causing significant problems with your eyesight, there are some treatments you can try.

"In some cases, when floaters are severe, a surgery called a vitrectomy or a laser procedure may improve the floaters for a patient," says Dr. Ashvini Reddy, an ophthalmologist at Athena Eye Institute.

If your floaters are caused by retinal damage or inflammation in your eye, your doctor may decide to prescribe medication or perform eye surgery, Reddy says.

When eye floaters can signal something serious

Eye floaters can also be a sign of certain eye-related conditions that require medical treatment.

1. Retinal problems

Eye floaters can also be a sign that something is wrong with your retina.

"If a person has a problem with their retina, like a tear or detachment, small blood vessels may break, releasing little drops of blood," says Sikder.

This can show up in your vision looking "like a swarm of bees or a collection of smaller black dots," Sikder says.

If your retina is torn or detached from the back of your eye, this is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment to prevent blindness.

2. Inflammation of the eye

Eye inflammation, also called uveitis, can cause changes in the vitreous of your eye, causing floaters. You can develop uveitis if your eye gets infected, injured, or if you have an inflammatory disease like lupus.

When your eye becomes inflamed, it may develop loose scar tissue or flecks of blood. In some cases, this debris can get into the vitreous and create floaters in your vision.

To treat this, an eye doctor can prescribe you corticosteroids in the form of eye drops to decrease the inflammation in your eyes.

3. Bleeding in the eye

Conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure may cause the blood vessels in your eye to grow larger or weaken.

When this happens, blood can leak into the vitreous, creating dark spots or streaks in your vision.

If you have diabetes-related bleeding in the eye, your doctor may recommend treatments like eye surgery to repair the blood vessels and remove scar tissue.

When to see a doctor

According to Sikder, there are a few key warning signs to look out for that may signal that your floaters are signs of a more serious condition.

You should see an eye doctor for an exam if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • New floaters or worsening of your floaters
  • A curtain of darkness across your vision or a collection of flashing lights, which can both be signs of retinal damage
  • Signs of inflammation like pain or redness in or around your eye

Even if your symptoms seem mild, "we recommend that anybody who is seeing floaters seek a thorough evaluation by a licensed ophthalmologist," Reddy says.

Insider's takeaway

Eye floaters are a common problem that often occurs due to natural changes in your eye as you age.

However, floaters can also be a sign of more serious conditions like a retinal tear or leaking blood vessel.

If you start seeing floaters for the first time, or your floaters change in any way, it's best to reach out to an ophthalmologist as soon as possible to get your eyes evaluated.

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