FLASHES & FLOATERS
What are Flashes & Floaters, and What Do They Mean?
Although for the most part flashes and floaters are a very normal part of your eyes’ ageing process, there are times that they can indicate a problem. It’s important to know the difference between a common occurrence and an emergency. The more familiar you are with your body’s signals, the more prepared you can be if something goes wrong.
What AM I SEEING?
You know the little strings and shapes that seem to float around in your peripheral vision? We call those floaters, and they’re perfectly natural.
The substance that fills your eyeball is called the vitreous. When you’re born, the vitreous has a gel-like consistency, but as you age, it dissolves; becoming more of a liquid. Because the vitreous doesn’t always dissolve evenly, there are often little pieces of undissolved vitreous floating around in the liquid. This is what makes the little shapes floating in the edge of your vision.
When we talk about flashes, we’re referring to sudden flashes of light that seem to come out of nowhere.
The interior of your eye is mostly covered by the retina; a very sensitive system of tissues. When the retina detects light, it sends an impulse through the optic nerve to the brain, where the impulse is translated into an image. Because the retina is so sensitive, a quick jolt, sudden movement, or tug is enough to stimulate it into sending an impulse. When that happens, you see a quick flash of light.
As the vitreous liquefies, it also tends to shrink, pulling away from the retina. Sometimes this retraction is enough to stimulate the retina, causing a flash.
When is there a Problem?
A good rule of thumb is anytime your eyes or vision change suddenly, it’s time to see a doctor. This rule applies to floaters. It’s normal to see floaters, especially as you age. On their own, floaters are totally harmless. However, if you start to notice a sudden change in the size, shape, or frequency of your floaters, it could indicate a problem.
If you’re experiencing a sudden downward shower of floaters, you need to see a doctor immediately, as you could be experiencing a retinal detachment.
It’s not uncommon to experience a flash of light after a blow to the head (kind of like a cartoon character seeing stars). This flash probably means the impact was enough to jostle your retinas. This isn’t necessarily going to spell trouble for your vision, however, head injuries are very serious, and you should always see a doctor after hitting your head.
If you suddenly experience waves of flashes accompanied by a downward shower of floaters, you need to see a doctor immediately as you could be experiencing a retinal detachment.