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May 30th, 2011
07:49 AM ET

What are eye floaters?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu.

Asked by Paul from New York

I'm 39 years old and have had a few floaters in both eyes for as long as I can remember. I go to the eye doctor every year for my glasses but forget to ask about these floaters. What causes them? Do I need to worry?

Expert answer

Thanks for your question. Floaters, or little spots or thread-like objects, can be seen particularly well if your eyes are moving and looking at something bright, such as a page on a computer screen or a blue sky.

Most of the time, they do not cause any problems. For more details, I consulted Dr. Ravi Goel, a board-certified ophthalmologist at Regional Eye Associates in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and an instructor with the Wills Eye Institute Cataract and Primary Eye Care Service in Philadelphia.

Goel describes the following analogy about floaters: Imagine the central part of the eye (the vitreous gel) as being a solid ball of ice or solid clear gelatinous material when you're born.

As you grow older, that ball of ice starts to turn into a liquid and starts to pull on the retina, the innermost part of the back of the eyeball. This process can lead to flashes (from the tugging of the gel-like material along the nerve layer of the retina) or floaters (cells that float in the central part of the eye and are seen by the central retina, called the macula).

Flashes and floaters may also be a sign of an ophthalmic migraine, which Goel says is similar to an aura of a migraine headache but without the pain.

The retina examination can be completely normal and ophthalmologists will send patients for a medical evaluation. Patients are typically evaluated for underlying headache, which may include cardiac and carotid evaluation.

If the gel-like material tugs too hard, there may be a sudden shower of floaters, which is a sign of a possible retinal detachment. This can happen in patients who have had recent trauma or surgery, are nearsighted (myopic), or who have sudden loss of central or peripheral vision, flashes or hazy vision.

These patients should be evaluated immediately. Goel recommends that anyone with floaters receive an initial ophthalmic consultation that includes pupil dilation - an evaluation that it sounds like you have already had.

Patients should review their symptoms and also possible triggers (such as coffee, chocolate and stress) that might suggest a migraine. It can be helpful to keep a journal of repeat episodes.

When a floater-like episode begins, Goel suggests immediately covering each eye to determine if it occurs in one eye or both, and documenting the time of day, activity and possible stressing events.

If you have any of the concerning symptoms or have further questions, be sure to consult your ophthalmologist. Good luck!

Follow Dr. Shu on Twitter


soundoff (69 Responses)
  1. mother of four

    This article is incomplete. Some "floaters" are not floaters at all but are caused by disease–two in particular–Toxoplasmosis (brought on by eating poorly cooked meat or contact with an infected cat, or its litter box) . Toxoplasmosis is only of mild concern (most people who contract it never know they had it and only a few show up with "floaters"), but one should see a doctor to determine if the disease is still active. The other is histoplasmosis, is commonly associated with those who work with poultry, and this can be very serious. The symptoms are similar and both are diagnosed with blood tests.

    May 30, 2011 at 08:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hawaiiduude

      This article is soo stupid. It's dust and small debris moving in the viscus tear surface. If you pay attention they usually travel downward unless you blink or move your eyes. It's so obvious people can't see this even though it's right before there eyes!

      May 30, 2011 at 19:47 | Report abuse |
    • mr cheese

      @hawaiiduude: you are wrong. floaters are not dust/debris in the eye. i have had them for 28 years now and they are always in the same place on the eye.

      May 31, 2011 at 00:12 | Report abuse |
    • Elle

      Will doctors actually test for toxoplasmosis? i have wondered before if I have had it.
      The article itself is silly and confusing. the analogy example is particularly useless.

      May 31, 2011 at 00:21 | Report abuse |
    • Akaypro

      I was diagnosed with histoplasmosis, and it has greatly affected my vision. I now notice constant "floaters" and a flashing blind spot in the affected eye constantly. If histoplasmosis is not diagnosed soon enough in the eyes it can lead to blindness!

      June 9, 2011 at 14:49 | Report abuse |
  2. drsolo

    I have had floaters all my life and was told they were of embryonic origin and nothing to worry about. I am not usually aware of them but they were a nuisance when I was doing a lot of work on a microscope looking at macrophages that actually look like my floaters. When I quickly looked to the side they floated away while the cells on a glass slide didnt.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floater

    May 30, 2011 at 08:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. LMG

    I've experienced floaters for as long as I can remember.... 46 years later, I find I'm not the only one.

    May 30, 2011 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Dana

    In this context, it would have been appropriate to mention and explain flying corpuscles. The failure to do so diminishes the value of the content.

    May 30, 2011 at 09:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. celticgoddess

    I have floaters so bad that it is like looking through black netting all the time. Nothing they can do about it till it gets so bad I can't see at all. I get the flashes every so often and then I notice the floats are worse. It is irritating but you learn to live with it.

    May 30, 2011 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DrN

      Increases in floaters, especially with associated flashes, may be signs of a much more serious issue, such as a retinal detachment. You should get into see your eye doctor immediately.

      May 30, 2011 at 12:54 | Report abuse |
    • john berry

      sounds like retinal detatchment which i had from a head injury, it may take awhile to detach completely 5-6 weeks.
      see an eye doctor, for dilation. laser surgery can help, it did for me, though i still have debris in one eye which creates eye strain in the other. it's a drag, and can be avoided. take care of yourself and see a good doc, a hospital emergency room may want to pass you off. it's a serious situation, i almost lost my sight -and i am an artist.

      May 31, 2011 at 03:44 | Report abuse |
  6. cjk1953

    I'm in my mid-50's and got my very first floater a year ago. My physician referred me to an ophthalmologist, who gave my eyes a very through exam. After he concluded that I had a floater, his explanation was very similar to Dr. Goel's. However, what my ophthalmologist told me, and Dr. Goel did not say, is that floaters don't always go away.

    May 30, 2011 at 10:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Greedo

    I hate when websites give out info like this. It makes people worry or think that they are gonna go blind. Floaters are PERFECTLY normal! It's not a disease or anything. There is a one in a ZILLION chance that you have a problem. Just see your eye doctor every few years and you'll be fine.

    May 30, 2011 at 10:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • David in Corpus

      Thank you, I will stop wigging myself out now.

      May 30, 2011 at 16:41 | Report abuse |
    • Smitherine

      AGREED! Such an alarmists article. I've had tons of floaters my entire life (41 years). This is my first ever comment on an article, but I felt I had to chime in on this nonsense. Why would it be written in a way that the only answer was something tragic? Ridiculous. I'm leaving.

      May 30, 2011 at 19:32 | Report abuse |
  8. Demara

    They're just proteins in the eye, unless you happen to be one in a bajillion people who has a real health problem. I get one or two of them sometimes but seriously, they don't do anything bad at all.

    May 30, 2011 at 10:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. KitriQ

    I would suggest just going to the eye doctor if you get a floater. Floaters are normal, but sometimes can be something more serious. I had a floater 2 years ago, which I ignored it for too long because I thought it was normal. It turned out to be eye cancer, and I am now blind in that eye and at risk to lose my eye altogether. Yes, this type of cancer is very rare, but if I had just made an appointment with my doctor right away, I might still have my sight. It's best to be proactive.

    May 30, 2011 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. joe

    oh squiggly line in my eye fluid, i see u there lurking under the periferee of my vision. but when i try to look at u, u float away! are u shy squggly line? why is it only when i ignore u u return to the center of my eye? oh squiggly line, its alright, u are forgiven!

    May 30, 2011 at 12:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ayala

      Thanks Stewie. :)

      June 22, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse |
  11. Normal

    I see floaters all the time. My eye doctor said that they are completely normal and nothing to worry about.

    May 30, 2011 at 14:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Bella

    Bats in the belfry produce droppings. These are what you see as floaters.

    May 30, 2011 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • vietvet72

      Best response; I laughed out loud! I have lots of bats then; I have many floaters in both eyes and can't remember them not being there for the last 50 years or so.

      June 21, 2011 at 16:21 | Report abuse |
  13. Steven Brattman

    I had my floaters vaporized by Dr. James Johnson of Irvine, California, one of the few doctors doing this painless procedure.

    May 30, 2011 at 15:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steve

      I've wondered if they've progressed to the point of doing something like this for this issue using a laser. I was scheduled for a vitrectomy to eliminate this issue but was transferred with my job the day the surgery was scheduled and had to cancel. Will google this and try and find someone in the midwest who will do it.

      May 30, 2011 at 15:57 | Report abuse |
    • BIHT

      Steve,

      My son has floaters and its a result of a condition called uveitis. He had complete vitrectomy in his right eye in Boston by a great doctor named Stephen Foster at MERSI. To those who are dismissing this as a serious issue, it can be symptomatic of something more serious. No you don't have to go running to the doctor panicked, just follow your instinct.

      May 30, 2011 at 20:51 | Report abuse |
  14. Dex

    I've had eye floaters since I was a kid. Last year I was having problems with my back and an x-ray resulted that I see a specialist for my back. I tested positive for HLA-B27, which my doctor said that eye floaters are a common symptom of the Ankylosing Spondylitis.

    May 30, 2011 at 17:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Eric

    It's important to note that an abrupt increase in flashes or floaters (i.e. strobe light or showers) may indicate a retinal tear or detachment. Also one sided flashes or auras as described may indicated amaurosis or transient ischemic attack, in an otherwise elderly vasculopath, which may warrant a stroke work up.

    May 30, 2011 at 17:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Sean Dupree

    My floater turned out to be ocular melanoma, which required four days of radium sewed to my eyeball to kill. Don't assume they are harmless.

    May 30, 2011 at 17:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. athenavm

    I first noticed my floaters about 4 years ago, when I was 26. I went to the doctor and she did some test in my eyes and checked my retina. She told me I was fine but I've been wondering since then if she should've done more tests. I have no other symptoms or health issues but who knows. Is the retina examination the only exam that is done on floaters?

    May 30, 2011 at 18:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. erich2112x

    People in airports and restaurants think I'm nuts but one day I'm going to catch that little bugger.

    May 30, 2011 at 19:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ron

      Lol! That's funny right there.

      June 16, 2011 at 07:51 | Report abuse |
  19. Jim

    Eye Floaters wow people and their illness.

    May 30, 2011 at 20:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. C Murdock

    This author really missed the mark. Floaters are very common and not usually a symptom of migraine or detached retina. "Paul from New York" didn't want this long answer about health conditions he doesn't have. The author also didn't say anything about how to get rid of them (I don't think there is a way, but he should have said that).

    May 30, 2011 at 20:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jimva

      And actually there is a surgery that will get rid of floaters – it's called a vitrectomy and can be performed by an experienced retina specialist. I had that option, but was convinced to wait and see if I can live with the floaters. Just knowing that I had (and still have) the option has made my adjustment much easier. The surgery has it's risks (not as much as some say) and just isn't necessary most of the time. You live fine with the floaters, I can assure you.

      June 1, 2011 at 12:51 | Report abuse |
  21. Spencer

    When I was 22 years old on Sept. 10 2010, I noticed a single grayish floater in the right part of my vision. I basically panicked and did tons of research on the internet. Since that time, I've become increasingly aware of several other floaters (that I probably already had). Once you notice them for the first time, it seems you begin to be very susceptible and aware of them. When I first noticed these back in September they were accompanied with a very painful 3 month chronic head and neck ache. I was under heavy work related stress at the time and went to see a ophthalmologist and regular medical doctor.The eye doctor checked my eyes very thoroughly and everything checked out. The medical doctor prescribed me an antidepressant (which I probably needed, and I don't usually take medication unless it is absolutely necessary) By the time the new year of 2011 came, all headaches had disappeared and everything was more or less back to normal. Unfortunately, the floaters have stayed. I notice them every morning, but they don't bother me as much as they used to. They come in all shapes and sizes, but have not seemed to increase in density or number since the original observation and awareness of them.

    At such a young age (now 23), I found it quite troubling to have to deal with these floater pests. But I seem to be completely healthy and as long as I keep my vision and these things don't increase in number or density (which they haven't) I'll be completely fine.

    I wish everyone luck who has to deal with this eye phenomena, and from my experience, don't let it get to you (psychologically) if you're an otherwise perfectly healthy individual!

    Best Wishes,

    Spencer

    May 30, 2011 at 23:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jimva

      Good post, and I agree.

      June 1, 2011 at 12:53 | Report abuse |
  22. Minerva

    Eye floaters can also be indirectly caused by a disease called Sarcoidosis which in turn can cause an inflammatory disease called uveitis. This can cause blindness. It isn't common, but it 's smart to have your eyes checked if you have Sarcoid in other organs and you begin have problems: floaters, spots, flashes etc before your eyes.

    May 30, 2011 at 23:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Tina C.

    I've had a moderate amount of large, dark floaters in both eyes ever since I was in a car accident in which my head hit the air bag. I know that floaters themselves are benign, but they're no less depressing and aggravating. I remember when I was a kid and had just a couple clear floaters that could rarely be seen. But this new batch is always with me: watching TV, driving, trying to enjoy the beauty of a beach scene or a sunset –all sights marred by black lines and specks floating everywhere. Imagine living your life inside a snow globe that's just been shaken, and you're trying to see something outside the snow globe –that's what having large floaters is like, 24/7.

    Some literature claims these floaters "fade away over time" but that's hogwash. I've had the same large, dark floaters for the last six years. No change. What I wouldn't give to have the clear vision I'd taken for granted before the accident.

    May 30, 2011 at 23:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Jim in Phoenix

    When I was under tremendous stress in attempts to complete my Masters Degree, "flashes" of what appeared to be brilliant neon blue light occurred within my visual range/field of perception. Stress, extreme sleep deprivation, too much caffeine and (at that time) nicotine were my diet for many months. A thorough eye examination, far beyond the norm, was performed by a specialist. In my case stress was the reason. An adjustment of schedule, self-expectations and personal diet/rest habits provided reasonable relief.

    Always take the time to see a medical professional when you experience sudden changes or unusual symptoms. You and your life are worth the check up. Nothing is worth ruining your health.

    What the heck, if the floaters aren't too bad then relax and consider them cheap entertainment. ;-P (kidding)

    May 31, 2011 at 00:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. float on

    Had lots of them for years, usually a couple big ones that mess with reading, no flashes. Doctors generally can not locate them with any routine procedures. Went to a new optometry clinic that could do a 3D tomograms on the macula; out of curiosity paid for it. I could actually see the detrius in front of the macula in the approximate field of view it should be at. I generally do no think there are any goo solutions at this time. Have found bright sunlight degrades them, the downside it cooks the crystallin proteins at the same time.

    May 31, 2011 at 02:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. The_Mick

    Hawaiiduude – what possesses you to make up information about dust and debris?

    I've had floaters all my life and some have been the same for years.

    May 31, 2011 at 04:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Joe in Colorado

    Some of my earliest memories (younger than 3 years old) are of looking up at the sky and seeing floaters. I've had them my entire life (and hate them !).

    May 31, 2011 at 04:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • yup

      Yup, same here. Tho they are more noticeable now that I'm nearing 50.

      March 2, 2013 at 08:53 | Report abuse |
  28. Jannynet

    Got my 1st floater in my left eye about 4 yrs ago. It's like a gnat and I keep trying to swat it during the summer. This year I got a mosquito wiggler in my right eye. It really drives me crazy. Doctor says not to worry. All is well. I'm 66 and they are more common when you age. He says your brain learns to ignore them most of the time. It ignores the gnat a lot but the wiggler is more persistent. I just hope I don't get any swarms. Just look for the lady waving her arms around.

    May 31, 2011 at 07:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jimva

      Yep, I have a gnat too, and a few wiggllers. Thewigglers get more wiggley and out of the way over time as your vitreous gets more liquid. Just think of them as visual entertainment when your bored.

      June 1, 2011 at 12:43 | Report abuse |
  29. kevin

    So you keep this "journal" of all the incidents and times and possible causes, etc....to what end? It doesn't tell you what you do with this "journal" or what a doctor will do with this info or any treatment that would result from this "journal". Sorry but to me this leaves the article useless.

    May 31, 2011 at 11:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. rts

    They can also be caused by bleeding in the eye, from a capillary. Happened to me about 15 minutes after being rear ended in a car accident. Just barely a bump.

    June 1, 2011 at 02:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. jimva

    This article is way too fluffy and incomplete. There is a lot more to floaters than meets the eye (pun intended). Wills Eye is a respected eye hospital. I can't believe the doc only said what was written. Anyhow, I've had major posterior vitreous detachment in both eyes in the past few years and have lots of floaters (PVD – google it). This is actually normal. I even had a slight hemmorage from the tugging on the retina which was really scarey but then cleared up. But floaters are annoying if you let them get to you. My adive to see an eye doc, get re-assured it's nothing worse (which it only rarely is), and then relax. It's amazing how they then don't matter. If you're really concerned, see a retina specialist (I did due to the hemmoraging). They'll put you at ease and do any fix that's rarely needed. An eye doc will tell you if you need it.

    June 1, 2011 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. anna

    interesting but useless-if there are serious issues then they are not floaters-i believe everyone has or had them @ some point in their life–i mean tell us something we dont knos or have they run out of pertnant issues.

    June 2, 2011 at 01:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Samantha

    I have what seem like floaters but is in fact ocular rosacea. I have very well-controlled rosacea, which has spread to my eyelids, causing severe dry eye. It has resulted in corneal abrasions at times, but is now controlled (and possibly will be cured) by a 4-month course of antibiotic and steroid eye drops. If you have rosacea (the Mayo Clinic website is good, and there are fabulous listservs), you could have ocular rosacea. Most people don't know they have either.

    June 2, 2011 at 20:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. FredD

    I tend to think that this column has too many scare tactics in it. I have had floaters since I was a child. I am now in my 50's and generally only see them when I am looking for them, especially against a white background or bright light. They are only a minor annoyance. At my last eye exam, I was told they were not worse than previous before. They move around with blinks or eye movements.

    June 7, 2011 at 18:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Ron

    I've had the same couple of floaters since at least as long as I can remember – sometime back around kindergarten, and I'm 47 now. I very rarely notice them, mostly just when I look up at the sky or do a sudden up down eye movement. Some good info and videos here – http://vitreousfloatersolutions.com/

    June 16, 2011 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Aaron L.

      Yea I never thought anyone else saw them. I used to see one when i was a little kid, some translucent squiggly thing, but over the years I guess i forgot about it or it went away. Intriguing stuff .

      June 25, 2011 at 17:36 | Report abuse |
  36. RIchard

    Dr. Michele Naruszewicz wrote an article about floaters.

    August 4, 2011 at 03:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. RIchard

    Dr. Michele Naruszewicz (http://www.eyeglasses-calgary-optometrists.com/eye-care-team/dr-michele-naruszewicz-od-optometrist/) wrote an article about floaters at http://www.eyeglasses-calgary-optometrists.com/floatersandspots/

    August 4, 2011 at 03:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Enck

    The harmless floaters usually look like colorless crystal (translucent) strands and dots. Generally, people younger than 40 experience this kind of floaters. Careful observation reveals that they are regular forms of transparent strands and tiny spheres.
    There is no treatment for harmless eye floaters, they are invisible to eye doctors. They are just a matter of perception. The acuity of visual system (retina + brain) is high enough to discern them. There is a spiritual tradition, Dzogchen, which considers them as Togal Visions. They are direct perception of reality without mind contours. Eye Floaters offer a lesson in the life. Their message is: learn to love life as it is and yourself as you are. The formula of this message is plain and simple: Unconditional Love.
    But only the harmless ones and only the eye doctors can determine if they are benign or not. http://love-eye-floaters.blogspot.com

    October 14, 2011 at 01:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mike

      invisible to eye doctors in TOTALLY INACCURATE! Doctors can clearly see them under routine testing....2 doctors have seen mine very easily....my cousin's doctor also seen her's and informed her she has floaters (she didnt know because they are out of her eye sight for now)...

      January 4, 2013 at 14:27 | Report abuse |
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  44. dkrycek

    Thank you for explaining this! I have been to my eye doctor in Chicago about this before, but I never knew how to explain it! Now I know that eye floaters are normal. Thanks again!

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  45. Mike

    Hi,

    I am 33 years old. I developed mild floaters (mine were mostly mutiple squiggly lines/webs instead of the dot kind) in January 2012. I waited for about a month before seeing an eye doctor. The eye doctor did a routine eye exam and stated my eyes were healthy and no serious problems were observed. I have needed glasses/corrective lenses/contacts for MANY years but NEVER got them because of vanity and I was mildly myopic. I believe being myopic and not treating my eyes with glasses or contact lenses which caused my eyes to strain for many years causes my floaters. Floaters are not uncommon in mild/sevely myopic cases. About 2-3 months after getting floaters I knew it was time to get glasses or contact lenses. I ended up getting, learning and now loving the contact lenses. I can see :0), my eyes arent strained and my floaters have improved/disappeared about 60% over the last year so far. My doctor told me because of my young age relative to those who usually get floaters (50+) there is a chance they could dissolve. My best advice, because it seems to have worked for me, is exercise, if you need glasses or contacts and you are NOT wearing them GO GET THEM NOW! and try not to look for the floaters all the time (although that is extremely difficult as i always did that and still do but alot less often since mine have faded/disappeared about 60%). My experience was depression, anxiety, "why me", frustration, disappointment in myself for not treating my eyes better and more.... There is a surgery called Floaterectomy (vitreous surgery just for floaters) but from ALL that i read it can be dangerous especailly if you are up in age as your eyes my not heal as well as someone youthful. I sincerely wish everyone with floaters calmness, happiness and all the best! Remember, LIFE CAN ALWAYS GET WORSE....JUST LOOK AROUND YOU!....Floaters arent the worse thing but as i know can be very VERY annoying and frustrating! Once again...ALL THE BEST!

    January 4, 2013 at 14:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Mike

    I forgot to mention....WEARING SUNGLASS, no matter how bright, dull or cloudy outside helps ALOT. I was late to wearing sunglasses, but once you find a style that fits and looks great on you, you'll love them for style and because it helps a ton with hiding your floaters when your outside :0)

    January 4, 2013 at 14:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. mattloves

    There have been more and more people going to eye doctors in chicago because of all the advancements in technology. People need to make sure their eyes are properly healthy and dont cause as many problems

    February 11, 2013 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
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