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Seeing Spots? That Spot May Be a ‘Floater’

By Candy Sagon

Seeing spots in front of your eyes? Or maybe little wisps or globs that move through your field of vision? Don’t be anxious. You’re seeing floaters, an eye condition that’s “very common the older you get,” says Jill Bixler, M.D., an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Michigan’s Kellogg Eye Center.

Floaters can sometimes signal a more serious condition, including retina problems that could endanger your vision, but typically, they’re just annoyances.

Why we have floaters
Most of the inside of your eyeball is filled with a gel-like material called the vitreous.

Imagine a tiny bag of Jell-O helping to provide shape and act as a shock absorber for the retina at the back of your eye. Unfortunately, as we age, the vitreous starts to sag and weaken. As the vitreous breaks down and becomes more watery, bits of the gel begin to peel off and float around inside your eye cavity. These bits cast shadows on the retina, and that’s what you’re seeing float by.

And if you’re nearsighted, “you’re more likely to get floaters,” says Bixler, because the elongated shape of the nearsighted eye adds to the strain on the vitreous.

When floaters are a concern
While floaters by themselves are not usually a problem, Leder says they “can be a warning sign of a retinal detachment. Retinal detachments can cause permanent vision loss and must be repaired immediately with surgery.”

A “sudden increase in the number of floaters, paired with flashes of light or a veil over the field of vision, should prompt immediate medical attention,” Bixler adds.

While retinal detachment is a major concern, floaters also can be caused by other problems, including inflammation in the back of the eye from infection; bleeding in the eye from injury or diseases like diabetes; or complications after cataract surgery.

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