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Eye Floaters

Eye floaters are quite a common occurrence and have been reported for hundreds of generations, but what exactly are these fast-moving, elusive dots? Below, you will find the answer to this question and many more. You’ll find easy-to-understand explanations, causes, risk factors, and whether or not these racing dots are cause for concern. Most importantly, you’ll learn where to find treatment and simple solutions to get rid of and prevent eye floaters.

What are Floaters and Flashes?
Muscae volitantes is the scientific name for eye floaters. They have various other names such as boogies, creepers, and even the more catchy term of amoeba. No matter the name you give them, these floaters have been described as annoying gnat-like distractions that float in and out of the visual field. This description is fitting since their scientific name means “flying flies” in Latin. These floaters can be an unwanted distraction in a world already brimming with unwanted distractions.

Inside the eyeball, there is a clear gel substance called the vitreous humor that gives the eye its round shape and helps keep it in its socket. Any issue with this gel results in vision problems or loss. Floaters are tricky and quite evasive. Sometimes, they zoom in and out of sight, and at other times they creep slowly across your line of vision as if strutting victoriously because you have no idea what it is or how to make it go away. Whenever you try to get a good look at them, they’re gone. This is because that gel substance is constantly changing shape, thereby moving those pesky little floaters. Trying to track one floater down is like trying to pop air bubbles in a bag of water. All you end up doing is pushing the little bubble around, and maybe even splitting it into two or three separate bubbles. You can never really grasp hold of it.

The best way to actually find these flying flies in the eyes is when you are looking at a light surface in a space that is well-lit. Floaters tend to have an asymmetric shape and can vary in size. This is due to the effect of light and shadows playing against each other. The common belief that this inconsistency happens on the surface of the eye is incorrect. In reality, you can’t look directly at it because the floater is caused by the shifting movements and reflections happening on the inside of the eye.

Eye flashes are flashes of light that sometimes accompany floaters. They sometimes look like lightening streaks across the field of vision. It’s the sensation of “seeing stars” when you bang your head really hard. Unlike floaters, which can only be seen in light, these are usually seen at night or in a dark room (1).

Causes and Risk Factors of Floaters
One of the most critical questions we ask ourselves when our eyes start to play tricks on us is what causes this and why am I affected?

It should be noted that the words “causes” and “risk factors” are often used interchangeably when describing who is likely to suffer any given condition. Causes usually describe outside factors and have a resulting effect. Risk factors are variables, whether environmental or biologic, that make someone more likely to develop a certain condition or disease. For simplicity’s sake, we will use them both to describe where eye floaters come from, how they develop and in whom.

The most common causes or risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Eyestrain
  • Fighting
  • Certain medical conditions

Aging: The most common risk factor of developing eye floaters is age. As we get older, this gel starts to dry up and shrink, causing it to form clusters of strands and clumps, and even large empty pockets. The fibers in the eye also start to wear down with age, detaching from the eye and contributing to the floaters. These issues, along with other sources of eye debris, are what cause the floaters. They can worsen with age and should be watched very closely. Usually, there is no cause for concern, but any increase in symptoms could point to more serious problems, so immediate treatment is necessary if symptoms should become worse in frequency or intensity.

Eye Straining: Another cause for eye floaters is general eye strain, or intense use of the muscles. This can occur by working on a computer, reading frequently, or driving for long periods of time (2). A muscle tear can contribute to the eye “junk” floating about inside the eye. Most of the time, these floaters are benign and can be treated by simply resting your eyes; however, if they become severe or more frequent, it could lead to more serious eye conditions, so you’ll want to seek treatment immediately.

Fighting: Frequent fights resulting in a punch to the eye can cause eye floaters. In fact, most traumas that involve a blow to the eye will result in at least a few floaters. A direct hit to the eye risks detaching the retina completely. Many a prized fighter lost his career due to a detached retina acquired in the ring.

Medical Conditions: People with diabetes, in addition to blood sugar, circulation, or other healing problems are at higher risk of developing dangerous eye diseases. Oftentimes, these diseases are preceded by the occurrence of more eye floaters than usual. People suffering from these conditions should frequently visit the ophthalmologist.

Certain groups of people are more prone to having a case of eye floaters. People with nearsightedness (myopia) are likely to have more floaters due to eye strain and tearing. Anyone who has recently had eye surgery, especially in the case of cataract surgery, are also at greater risk of developing floaters.

Dangers and Warning Signs
Composed of many cooperating parts, the eye is fragile in many ways. The soft skin-like tissue on the outside of the eye can be irritated and scratched relatively easily. The retinas can become detached, cataracts can form. What would be considered a small injury on any other body part could be tragic to the eye.

If a significant increase in floaters and/or vision loss occurs, you may have early-stage retinal detachment, especially if you develop sudden eye flashes in increased frequency and duration. Unfortunately, if that is the case, your only option at this point is surgery. Don’t panic just yet, however. Make an appointment with an ophthalmologist so they can review your symptoms and test for detachment. Additional diseases to watch out for when floaters increase and severe eye flashes occur are retinal tears and retinopathy.

Treatment and Prevention
People over the age of 50 should have any visual disturbances checked by an ophthalmologist immediately. If large amounts of floaters in the eye become too much to see, you may be at risk of serious eye injury or complications. Major issues with the eye, especially retinal detachment, require an emergency corrective surgery.

Although there is no real method to avoid the onset of floaters, keeping your eyes rested, healthy, and protected can definitely decrease your chances of developing floaters and flashes. Simple things like getting enough rest at night, proper lighting while reading and working on the computer, diet, and avoiding blows to the head and eyes can greatly reduce your risk.

1. National Library of Medicine/National Institute of Health

2. Mayo Clinic: Eyestrain

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