What are eye floaters?

Answer by Scott Stapleton, MD
Jun 14, 2018

“Ever since I was little, I sometimes see these worm-like squiggles in my eye. What are these things?”

That’s a general question with a large spectrum. Your eyes are filled with a Jello-like material called vitreous and this is what helps the eye keep shape. This substance isn’t perfectly clear so there are little cells you can see on occasion. As you age, that material liquefies and has a tendency to pull of the back of the eye- the retina.
As it does that, there are some attached areas that are a little opaque, and they cast a shadow on the retina. We call these “flash and floaters.” We see a slight flash as it tugs on the retina and floater is the shadow of these cells as they move around the vitreous.
This is a normal part of aging. Most of the time it’s benign or not a problem. However, in a small percentage of cases, it can be an issue because this is the same process that can lead to retinal detachment. That’s why anytime you have a new onset of these floaters, have a dilated eye exam to check for a tear in the retina.
If caught early, it can be treated with a laser to prevent retinal detachment. If a retinal detachment does occur, however, it’s not an easy treatment and requires surgery. I like to use this metaphor: say you get a small nail in your tire. If you have it taken care of, it’s not a problem. But if you ignore it and drive 10 or15 miles on a flat tire, it destroys the wheel, creating a bigger problem.
But, like I stated before, most of the time it’s benign and a normal part of eye. But if a new onset occurs, it should be looked at and not ignored. 

Scott Stapleton, MD

Board Certified Ophthalmologist & Refractive Surgeon

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