June 12, 2012 at 8:44 AM ET
You’re staring at your blank computer screen when dots drift into your line of vision. They resemble specks of dust or perhaps clouds or cobwebs. Don’t panic -- you’re not seeing things. You’re witnessing eye floaters, not tricks of the eye or mind.
“Floaters are a part of the normal aging process,” says Dr. Pravin Dugel, managing partner at Retinal Consultants of Arizona in Phoenix.
Eye floaters are fibers that detach from the eye. A hollow cavity filled with a vitreous jelly, composed of 99 percent water and 1 percent collagen, lies in the center of the eye. This gel helps give eyes their round shape and aids in seeing. As we age, the vitreous liquefies and pieces of it begin to release from the back wall of the eye. The debris floats across the field of vision, causing people to see dots, flies, cobwebs, or clouds.
“You can think of [floaters] as UFOs floating in the eye,” explains Dr. Abdhish R. Bhavsar, director of clinical research at the Retina Center of Minnesota. He explains that unlike UFOs, physicians know what floaters are, but like UFOs they often appear differently based on who sees them.
While it seems that floaters glide across the front of the eye, they’re actually drifting through the eye. It’s the shadow of the fibers reflecting on the retina that people see.
Although eye floaters don’t occur in everyone, at least 60 percent of people experience them by age 65, says Dugel. Those who have had cataract surgery or have severe nearsightedness might experience eye floaters earlier in life. People who are nearsighted (or myopic) have longer eyeballs, and the vitreous gel stretches more in myopic eyes than in an eye with either normal vision or farsightedness.
Bhavsar notes that sometimes people experience vitreous detaching, but do not see floaters while others see a large number of floaters while the vitreous shedding is minimal.
Even though both doctors stress that eye floaters should not be cause for concern, they do recommend people go for eye exams if there is a sudden explosion in the number of floaters or flashing lights accompany the dots.
“In some people as that jelly peels off it’s like Velcro peeling off … it pulls on the retina and it causes a tear,” Dugel says.
If the retina tears, ophthalmologists can repair it, using lasers or cyrotherapy, which involves freezing, and can prevent the retina from detaching from the eye. If the retina does dislodge, doctors must perform surgery to repair it.
But for most people, floaters are simply an annoyance. In very rare cases, ophthalmologists perform surgery to remove the vitreous, but for majority of patients, the floaters settle to the bottom of the eye after time and cause no other problem.
“In the absence of all those other medical conditions, [floaters] are a nuisance and they can affect people in varying [degrees],” says Bhavsar.