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Understanding Flashes and Floaters

People will occasionally see ‘spots’ floating in their vision or they may experience flashes of light, followed by floaters. These events may be due to a normal aging process called vitreous detachment or they may rarely be the symptoms of retinal tears or detachments.

The vitreous gel is a thick, clear gel-like substance that fills the chamber in your eye from your iris back to the retina. The gel is not really attached to the retina except towards the very front and around the optic nerve. It simply lies against the retina everywhere else. As we age, the gel has a tendency to shrink, pulling away from the retina. When this occurs, should the gel have created adhesions to the retina, it will ‘tug’ on the retina as it tries to pull away. This tugging is the cause of your seeing flashes or “lightening streaks” that last for just a second.

Should the gel break away cleanly, you would not see any more flashes or any floaters. However, if the gel pulls itself apart as pulls away from the retina, leaving small bits or strands behind, you may see the shadow they cast upon the retina as those irritating floaters or ‘flying bugs’. While these floaters can be very aggravating, they seldom require medical intervention. Should the retina tear as a result of this tugging, you will still see floaters but, these would be from shadows cast upon the retina by other pieces of retina. This requires immediate medical attention!

If you should start seeing flashes and floaters or start seeing new floaters, you need to have a dilated eye examination to determine the cause. While the reason is usually benign, you can’t assume that is the case. Untreated retinal tears can lead to a retinal detachment, a serious condition that is sight-threatening.

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