Our bodies change throughout the course of life. Changes in eyesight are common, especially as we grow older. Many people encounter “floaters” and flashes of light in the field of vision, and while most are not harmful to your vision, these symptoms can be a sign of a more serious, vision-threatening condition. The only way to know is through a dilated eye exam.
The center of the eye is filled with a gel-like substance called the vitreous, which helps give the eye its round shape. As we age, the vitreous often begins to shrink, and when this occurs, small clumps of cells may begin to form. These floaters may appear as small specks, rings or cobweb-like strands that move through your field of vision, casting shadows on the retina. They are most noticeable when looking at a light-colored wall or bright space, and quickly disappear when you try to focus your gaze directly on them. In some cases, large floaters may block your vision, requiring removal to restore clear vision.
While many types of floaters are not a cause for serious concern, sudden onset or increases in floaters may indicate an underlying issue, such as damage to the retina. Flashes of light can also be experienced when the vitreous pulls or rubs against the retina. Like floaters, these flickers of light could be harmless, however, they should be addressed immediately with your eye doctor. The strain of the shrinking vitreous may begin to form small tears in the retina, which could lead to a retinal detachment. A noticeable increase in flashes requires immediate attention, as it could indicate that the retina is detaching.
“While floaters and occasional flashes are often not a serious risk to your eye health, they may be signs of an existing or potential retinal tears or detachment, which should be taken very seriously,” said Dr. Trevor Elmquist, founder of Elmquist Eye Group. “When the retina is torn, fluid can leak through the tear, causing the retina to separate from its surrounding eye tissue, which can result in permanent vision loss.”
A study in Ophthalmology showed that 39.7% of patients with sudden symptoms of floaters and/or flashes had a vitreous detachment, a common result of a shrinking vitreous. 8.9% had a torn retina. While the odds may seem low, these conditions should be taken seriously.
If small retinal tears are caught early enough, proper treatment can prevent further damage. However, retinal tears that progress to retinal detachments are more difficult to repair and often result in some form of vision loss. A swift, early response can be vision-saving.
Tears and detachments aren’t associated with pain, so it’s important to be on the lookout for warning signs, including:
• Increase in new floaters
• Severe flashes of light
• Sharp decline in vision
• Curtain-like sensation clouding your vision
• Floaters that become present following an eye injury
“If you experience any of these warning signs, see your eye care professional right away for a thorough exam,” Elmquist said. “Further damage can be prevented if a tear is detected early and treated quickly.”
Eye exams are important to evaluate for signs of retinal tears or detachment, especially if experiencing floaters or flashes of light. During an exam, your eye doctor puts drops in your eyes to dilate, or widen, the pupils to get a clear view of what’s going on inside your eyes and to look for any signs of concern.
Floaters and flashes can present at any age but are most likely to occur in those over the age of 50. These symptoms can also affect those who are nearsighted, who have had cataract surgery, and who have diabetes, eye inflammation or previous eye injuries.
Even without symptoms, regular eye exams are key for healthy vision. Subtle changes in eyesight can easily be written off or missed entirely, however, regular eye exams can help detect the gradual changes that may have gone unnoticed. A comprehensive eye exam provides ophthalmologists and optometrists an opportunity to monitor, detect and treat developing eye conditions before vision loss occurs.
If you have a sudden increase in floaters or flashes of light, immediate treatment is vital to help prevent vision loss. Elmquist Eye Group offers same-day appointments for emergency eye care needs. With more than 25 years of service to the Southwest Florida community, Elmquist Eye Group offers experienced doctors who are dedicated to patient care. Dr. E. Trevor Elmquist, Dr. Kate Wagner, Dr. Sarah Eccles-Brown and Dr. Nina Burt of Elmquist Eye Group are available to answer your questions. With three U.S. military veterans leading the practice, Elmquist Eye Group’s team stands ready to serve you right here in Southwest Florida. For more information, visit www.Elmquist.com, call 239-936-2020 or stop by an Optical Boutique location in Fort Myers or Cape Coral.
Elmquist Eye Group
7970 Summerlin Lakes Dr.
2336 Surfside Blvd., Suite 121