Women sitting at a desk, rubbing her eyes
Women sitting at a desk, rubbing her eyes

Eye Floaters + Eye Flashes

Eye floaters are tiny spots, specks, dots, circles, lines or cobwebs in your field of vision, appearing to float in front of the eye. They may seem like distant objects, but they are tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous, or gel-like, portion of the eye.

You usually notice floaters when looking at something plain, such as a blank wall or blue sky. Floaters are most often isolated occurrences that are a perfectly normal part of vision. The vitreous gel thickens and shrinks as we age, sometimes forming tiny clumps in the vitreous. These clumps cast shadows onto the retina, and the resulting forms and shapes are referred to as eye floaters.

You are more likely to get floaters if you:

  • Are nearsighted (far away objects appear blurry)
  • Have had surgery for cataracts
  • Have had inflammation (swelling) inside the eye
  • Have diabetes

Sometimes floaters have more serious causes, including:

  • Eye infections
  • Eye injuries
  • Uveitis
  • Bleeding in the eye
  • Vitreous detachment (when the vitreous pulls away from the retina)
  • Retinal tear (when vitreous detachment tears a hole in the retina)
  • Retinal detachment

If floaters become more frequent and are accompanied by eye flashes, this may be a sign of a more serious condition and should be immediately brought to the attention of an eye doctor.

What Are Eye Flashes?

Eye flashes can look like flashing lights or lightning streaks in your field of vision. They’re also described as bursts or streaks of light similar to the “stars” you may see after being hit in the head.

Sometimes during the process of the vitreous shrinking, it remains partially attached to the retina and tugs on it. The resulting movement of the retina’s nerve cells can cause eye flashes.

Floaters and flashes may also be caused by trauma to the eye, migraine headaches or impending retinal detachment. Retinal detachment is a serious condition.

Retinal tear or detachment can be a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical care if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Increase in number and size of eye floaters
  • Flashes of light in one or both eyes
  • A shadow or “curtain” on the sides or in the middle of your field of vision
  • Sudden decrease in vision

Symptoms of Eye Floaters and Eye Flashes

Eye Floaters:

  • Visible appearance of black shapes and lines
  • Usually wisp-like shapes that go away almost immediately

Eye Flashes:

  • Visible bursts or streaks of light
  • May be one burst in one area or several over a wide area

Ophthalmic migraine
If you see a flash that looks like jagged lines or heat waves in one or both eyes, it may be caused by a migraine and may last up to 20 minutes. A migraine is a spasm of blood vessels in the brain. If you get a headache after the flashes, this is called a migraine headache, but sometimes you only see the light flash without having a headache, which is called an ophthalmic migraine or migraine without a headache.

Most floaters and flashes are a normal part of vision. However, when accompanied by other symptoms or lasting for an extended period of time, these could point to a serious condition that can lead to severe vision loss. For this reason, it’s recommended that anyone who experiences eye flashes schedule an exam with their eye doctor immediately.

When Floaters and Flashes Are Serious

You should contact your eye doctor right away if:

  • You notice a lot of new floaters
  • You have a lot of flashes
  • A shadow appears in your peripheral (side) vision
  • A gray curtain covers part of your vision

Treatments for Eye Floaters and Eye Flashes

Most of the time, eye floaters are not a sign of anything harmful, and simply looking up or down can move them out of your field of vision. However, there are times when they can be signs of a serious condition.

Treatment for floaters depends on the cause:

  • If caused by another eye condition, you may need treatment for that condition
  • If caused by aging and they don’t bother you, then you likely won’t need any treatment
  • If floaters impair your vision (or make it hard to see clearly) and/or interfere with your daily life, your eye doctor might suggest a surgery called a vitrectomy to remove the floaters. Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of this surgery