Floaters and Flashes - When to Call the Doctor

Floaters and flashes - are they a harmless and a normal part of the aging process or a sign of a serious eye condition like a detached retina?

Floaters in the Eye

My husband had been using a jack hammer to take up some tile in our bathroom. He had also been working in a lot of dust and debris doing some demolition work. Although he was wearing eye protection goggles, by the end of the day his eyes were red and irritated.

The next day he called me at work to ask me, what does it mean if I am seeing floaters and flashes? So I started asking him more questions such as when did they start, how frequent are they, how many, etc. He stated that there was a sudden increase in the number and frequency of both. So I immediately called our ophthalmologist to get him in for an appointment. The eye doctor's office understood the urgency for the appointment and got him in right away.

Post Vitreous Detachment

The physican performed a thorough eye exam, dilating the pupils. Pupil dilation is necessary to get a good look at the retina to determine if there is any retinal tear or hole. As we age our pupils get smaller making it harder to see the retina without dilation. My husband was told that he had a post vitreous detachment.

A posterior vitreous detachment occurs when the vitreous gel that gives our eyes its shape, changes its consistency. It becomes more liquid as we age which causes the volume of the gel to shrink. There are also millions of tiny fibers that are intertwined with the gel and the lining of the retina. When the vitreous humor shrinks these fibers experience a tugging or pulling. This tugging results in an increased number of floaters and sometimes flashes.

Floaters in the eye can be experienced at any age, but they become more common as we age. They appear as tiny black specks that seem to float across one's field of vision. Normally they are quite harmless and do not interfere with one's vision

Retina Tear

The reason it is so important that a person get to an eye doctor after a sudden flood of floaters and/or flashes is to check for a tear in the retina. The retina can be torn when the vitreous gel shrinks and pulls or tugs on the lining of the retina. If there is a tear, then fluid can get in and behind the retina. The build up of fluid then causes the retina to detach which results in a severe loss of vision.

Be sure to call your eye doctor when you experience:

1. Sudden appearance of floaters or a significant increase in the number of floaters

2. Sudden appearance of flashes

3. A decrease or distortion of vision

To learn more about eye floaters, causes and treatment go to:

Eye Floaters - Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Leslie Degner, RN, BSN

Better Health for Better Vision