What are floaters?

Floaters appear as black spots or something that looks like a hair or small pieces of cobweb. These can be semi-transparent or dark and appear to float in front of your vision. If you have had these for years, your eye and your brain learn to ignore them. Sometimes the number of floaters increases as you get older. Occasionally an increase in floaters can be a sign of problems inside the eye.

Because they ‘float’ in the jelly of your eye, you will find that if you move your eye to try to look at a floater it will move away in the direction you move your eye. You might only see the floater if you are staring at a light coloured surface or at the sky during the day.

Some people find that floaters can be a nuisance, but most people become used to them. They rarely cause problems with your vision.

Why do floaters occur?

Some people are born with floaters. Other floaters occur as you get older when the gel in the eye, the vitreous humour, naturally shrinks. The gel separates into a watery fluid and wavy collagen fibrils. The fibrils are seen as line-shaped floaters. Sometimes the gel shrinks enough to collapse away from the light sensitive lining at the back of your eye, which is called the retina. Once the gel has collapsed, some people see a large ring-shaped floater.

The collapse of vitreous gel can pull on your retina. If this happens you would see this as flashes of light.

Floaters can also caused by some eye diseases that cause inflammation. This is not very common.

Who is at risk of floaters?

Floaters are more common in people who are short-sighted. They may increase if you have had an eye operation such as cataract surgery, or laser treatment after cataract surgery

What might happen if I have floaters?

Most of the time floaters are harmless. Sometimes they may be annoying, but treatment is not advised.

Occasionally a sudden increase in floaters – either one or more large ones or a shower of tiny ones – may be a sign of a more serious eye disease such as retinal detachment. This is when your retina pulls away from the back of your eye, and it may lead to a sudden increase in floaters and possibly a blank spot or shadow in your vision which does not go away. This needs immediate attention.

If you notice these symptoms, you should contact your optometrist straight away. If you cannot do this, you should get urgent attention from an eye casualty department at the hospital. If there is no eye casualty department nearby, you can go to your usual hospital casualty department, but it is best to go to an eye casualty department if you can. An ophthalmologist (a specialist eye doctor) will need to use eye drops and a special light to look inside your eyes to check if your retina is damaged.