Right Before Your Eyes

Tiny cobwebs, small shadowy shapes, and squiggly lines floating in your field of vision should not be ignored. These specks, or floaters, are likely harmless, but you should still visit your doctor.

What causes floaters? Ophthalmologist Richard Most, MD, of Mount Sinai Hospital, explains:  “If you stare into a blue sky, sometimes you’ll see little bubbles and that’s basically the fluid floating in your eye,” he says. “You can see them because the eye translates the light coming into the eye. It takes a picture of it and the picture is seen as if it’s floating out there in space.”

According to Dr. Most, 95 percent of floaters are harmless; they are a natural part of the aging process. Floaters appear when a section of the vitreous, a gel-like substance filling 80 percent of the eye, shrinks or tears. The tears can also cause retinal detachment.

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“Think of something like plastic or saran wrap,” says Dr. Most. “If you pull it equally in all directions, it’s like a clear window. But if you crinkle it, it has all of these little creases in it. If you shine a light through all of those creases, it will look like little lines, hair, or spider webs on the wall.”

While children can also see floaters, ophthalmologist Steven Greenberg, MD, of WESTMED Medical Group says that these are usually nothing to worry about. Floaters can be more dangerous for adults with eye trauma, infections, or nearsightedness. Adults should call their doctor to check the severity of the tears.

There are a number of treatment options, although smaller tears typically heal spontaneously. Lasers are used to close tiny tears in smaller cases before they develop into detachments. True retinal detachment is usually treated by inserting air, or material that acts as a tamponade, into the eye and moving the retina back into place.

“The important thing is that people get checked if they have any new symptoms,” says Dr. Greenberg.

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