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Seeing Spots? That Spot May Be a 'Floater'

Those little wisps are usually more annoying than serious. Here's when to be concerned

En español l 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.

Woman's Eye, Floaters - What They Signal

Nearsighted? You may be more likely to get floaters. — Juliet White/Getty Images

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.

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"Floaters are more obvious when you're looking at a bright background like a blue sky or a white wall," explains Henry Leder, M.D., a retina specialist at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Floaters can occur at any age, but most typically occur in adults from 40 to 70, Leder says. By some estimates, by age 70 nearly everyone has floaters.

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.

The flashes of light — akin to seeing lightning out of the corner of your eye — occur when the sagging vitreous detaches from the back of the eye, tugging on the retina and causing what appear to be short, bright bursts. Patients who are seeing flashes and floaters need to be checked right away by their ophthalmologist, says Rishi Singh, M.D., of the Cleveland Clinic Cole Eye Institute. "A dilated eye examination is key to determining the difference between something benign and something more serious."

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.

Candy Sagon writes about health for AARP Media. See more of her health reporting on the AARP Blog.

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