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Understanding Floaters

Understanding Floaters in the Eyes Life s little annoyances...there are many. And it seems as though the older we get the more there are. One common age-related nuisance that is particularly bothersome appearing around the fifth or sixth decade (often much earlier) is the vitreous floater.

It usually goes something like this. You re reading the newspaper or a book and suddenly you see a speck of

something fly across the page. When you move your eyes to follow the speck it moves out of vision. It happens again and this time you think maybe it s one of those tiny insects buzzing around your face. You take a few swats but soon realize that there is no flying insect in the vicinity.

You glance back at your reading material and there it is again almost as if there were bugs flying around inside your eye. "What s going on?" you wonder aloud. Now you re concerned bordering on anxious. You look around the room but notice the annoying floating speck only when you direct your eyes at something brightly illuminated such as a white wall or page in a book.

Some people report seeing more than just a tiny flying speck. In fact many individuals with vitreous floaters report seeing large amounts of connected floating debris that form dots circles lines or web-like thread patterns resembling a spider web. Typically they ll report how they can even "chase" these elusive particles around just by changing the position of their eyes. Usually when the eye moves toward the floater it moves away like trying to catch a shadow.

One thing is for sure when most people first start to see floaters they are terrified and convinced that they are about to lose either their eyesight or their sanity!

What s going on?

Let me simplify. Picture a basketball...perfectly round and hard. The ball maintains its shape because of the air that fills it. Instead of air the eyeball is filled with a substance called vitreous humor. (This humor has nothing to do with being funny. In this case humor is a word borrowed from Latin meaning liquid.) If you could hold vitreous humor in the palm of your hand you d see that it resembles clear jello that has been out of the refrigerator for a while.

When we are young the vitreous humor filling our eyeball is relatively firm and transparent...sort of like perfectly clear jello when it s holding its form. If you take the jello out of the refrigerator it eventually begins to soften. The same is true for the vitreous. As we age it becomes much less firm. It begins to shrink and become somewhat liquefied being able to freely slosh around inside the eyeball.

Instead of one solid body the vitreous now separates into clumps and strands. By moving the eyes if the lighting conditions are just right many people can actually see these clumps and strands as they go floating past their line of vision or in their side vision. This terrifying experience is what usually sends people rushing to their eye doctor for an explanation.


Nearly always the aging of the vitreous and the subsequent sighting of floaters is a benign situation. By far most people will not experience any further difficulties. However; there are other reasons for the appearance of this vitreous debris. It s possible that if the vitreous moves around a little too vigorously it can tug at the underlying retina a little too much causing it to tear. Also the floating debris could be by-products of inflammation or red blood cells.

What should you do?

If you suddenly start to notice floating particles or shadows in your line of vision it s probably a good idea to let your eye doctor take a look. Ditto for those of you who have had floaters for a long time and are now noticing a big increase in their presence. Another warning sign: flashing lights in your side vision which could mean that your retina is being tugged on and that could lead to a retinal tear or even worse a retinal detachment. Have it checked out.

Just keep in mind that most of the time the appearance of vitreous floaters is just another part of the aging process that will bring you no further trouble. Occasionally; however floaters are a warning of a more serious problem. When in doubt make an appointment to see your eyecare practitioner.

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