Your Eyes: Understanding Flashes and Floaters
Ever see something drifting across the sky, then discover it’s actually drifting across your eye? That would be a “floater.”
Ever see something drifting across the sky, then discover it’s actually drifting across your eye?
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
That would be a “floater.” Floaters are bits of debris in the interior of your eye that appear when you look at something white or very bright. “People describe them as cobwebs, spider webs, bubbles or even ‘tadpoles’,” says ophthalmologist Rishi Singh, MD.
Dr. Singh sees patients with floaters and “flashes” every day. Flashes often accompany floaters and look like a camera flash going off when you close your eyes or wake up in the middle of the night.
“If you’ve had floaters for 40 years, you don’t have to see your ophthalmologist,” advises Dr. Singh. “But if you have ‘recent-onset’ floaters — if they weren’t there yesterday or last week — see an ophthalmologist that day or the next.”
Prompt appointments are especially important if you see many floaters or if floaters are accompanied by flashes.
Flashes are more ominous than floaters, notes Dr. Singh, because they signal an irritation of the retina from tugging, tearing, inflammation or infection.
“When the retina is stimulated, the brain sees it as light because it only has photoreceptors,” he explains.
A mild tug can progress to a retinal tear, which can progress to retinal detachment — a medical emergency. Torn or detached retinas must be promptly repaired by laser surgery or another procedure to preserve vision.
Despite the fast action required, there is no need to panic, says Dr. Singh. Flashes and floaters are just symptoms of a problem that most often turns out to be minor.
Flashes and floaters can be caused by:
Whether or not you have flashers or floaters, you can help preserve your eyes. Experts say: