am i dying

Why Do I Sometimes See Annoying Floating Spots?

Photo: Tim Flach/Getty Images

Specks and squiggles float around in my eyes sometimes. Is there something wrong with my vision?

It’s pretty normal to see tiny dark blobs or transparent threads dancing around in one of your eyes. These spots or squiggles are known as eye floaters and they’re often benign, but they become concerning if you start to see more of them than usual or your vision starts getting worse, says Gennady Landa, MD, a retina specialist with New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai.

So, why do you see floaters at all? To understand this, you’ll need to know a bit about the structure of your eyes. At the back of your eyeball is the retina, a layer of tissue that converts light rays to impulses that the brain interprets as images. The interior of the eyeball is filled with a gel-like substance known as the vitreous humor. As we age, the vitreous becomes more liquid and can shrink and sag. At the same time, the microscopic collagen fibers inside tend to form clumps or strands, blocking some of the light that passes through your pupils and casting very small shadows on your retina. These shadows are the spots you’re seeing.

Usually, the spots are not directly in your line of vision, and they move around as you move your eyes, which is why you can’t truly “look” at them. Floaters might be more noticeable when you’re looking at white backgrounds like books, phones, or computers or a plain background like a blue sky. Eventually, floaters will move out of the way, but they stick around long enough to really bother some people.

Typically, this phenomenon doesn’t happen until middle age, but people who are nearsighted — that is, they need glasses to see things in the distance — tend to experience floaters when they’re younger, says Dr. Landa, who’s also an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. That’s because the vitreous breaks down sooner in people with myopia.

While they’re usually harmless, floaters can be a sign of retinal detachment, where the retinal tissue pulls away from the back of the eye, separating it from blood vessels that provide oxygen and nourishment. This condition can lead to permanent vision loss the longer it’s left untreated. You can’t feel it happening, which is both a blessing and a curse, so you need to pay close attention to the following warning signs:

• If you see more floaters than you usually do or you have floaters plus blurred vision or loss of peripheral vision, you should call an eye doctor ASAP, Dr. Landa says.

• Same goes if you see flashes or stars and you didn’t just have your picture taken.

If you have prescription glasses, he recommends getting an annual eye exam where your pupils get dilated — that’s how the optometrist or ophthalmologist looks for signs of retinal detachment.

Some people might see flashes of jagged lines in both eyes that completely disappear after a few minutes, and this is what’s known as an ocular migraine. It can happen with or without the pain of a migraine headache, but if you have both pain and visual disturbances, that’s a migraine with aura. Your eye doctor should know if you experience either type, but it’s usually not cause for concern unless the ocular migraines are happening frequently, he says.

People with just a few floaters and none of the other worrying symptoms basically have to try to forget about them. If the spots are really bothersome, they can be corrected with surgery, but it’s only an option for someone who’s had them for a long time and is at their wit’s end, Dr. Landa says. The procedure is known as a vitrectomy, and an ophthalmologist makes a small incision in the eye through which they remove the vitreous and replace it with a solution — basically, deflating and inflating your eyeball. Problem is, the surgery may not remove all of the floaters, and you could still get new ones, in addition to retinal tears. With those odds, some people would rather keep their eyeballs intact.

Why Do I Sometimes See Annoying Floating Spots?