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What It Means When You See Flashes and Floaters in Your Eyes

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Glenn Stok is a technical writer who researches health issues he experienced. He writes about them to educate readers seeking information.

Seeing flashes of light

Seeing flashes of light

I had the experience of suddenly seeing floaters and flashes of light in my eyes. It turned out that I had Posterior Vitreous Detachment (PVD). That's when the vitreous detaches from the retina. I'll explain what I learned from it, and I'll tell you what you need to know to save your eyesight.

PVD is not a serious condition. However, the same symptoms could be the result of the retina detaching from the rear of the eye, which is a serious condition that needs immediate attention. So a trip to an ophthalmologist is crucial to get a proper diagnosis.1

It Began With Flashes of Light

One day I suddenly had arcs of light flashing in my peripheral vision. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought it might be an ocular migraine attack.

Later in the day, I thought my glasses were dirty. So I tried to clean them, but I still saw cloudiness over everything.

Once I realized my glasses were indeed clean, it became evident that the disturbance was in my right eye. Then I realized that the cloudiness was from a vast number of floaters.

Floaters are like little hair-like strands floating around the eye. You probably notice them when you look up at the sky on a bright day. We all have a few that generally don't bother us. However, my experience became so annoying that I called my ophthalmologist.

He asked me if I had also experienced any arcs of light or flashes. Since I did, he wanted to examine me immediately. I had no idea why he was so insistent about having me rush over right away, but I listened to him and headed to his office.

What Does It Mean When You Suddenly See Floaters and Flashes of Light?

I learned a lot from that experience. When one experiences these symptoms, it might mean either one of two things:

1. You might have a detached retina.

A retina detachment causes debris from pieces of tissue to float around the eye resulting in what we call "floaters."

If you have a detached retina, it can be repaired in most cases if taken care of very quickly. However, if you wait too long, you can lose your sight with that eye. Don’t wait! Rush to your ophthalmologist as soon as you experience flashes.

2. You might have a detached vitreous.

Another problem that causes the same symptoms with flashes of light and debris of floaters is a detached vitreous. The vitreous is a jelly-like substance filling the eyeball. It’s transparent, and you see right through it.

As we get older, the vitreous tends to dry out and shrink. As it shrinks, it may pull away from the rear of the eye. That is known as a Posterior Vitreous Detachment (PVD).

The retina is on the rear of your eye. It's like a movie screen on which images appear. The retina transfers these images to the brain through the optic nerve.

When the vitreous detaches and pulls away from the retina, the disturbance sends signals to the brain that simulate arcs of light. That's why you would have the same symptoms as a detached retina.

Diagram of Eye Showing Vitreous Detachment

A Posterior Vitreous Detachment occurs as the vitreous shrinks and pulls away from the rear of the eye.

A Posterior Vitreous Detachment occurs as the vitreous shrinks and pulls away from the rear of the eye.

Why the Vitreous Pulls Away From the Retina

As we age, the vitreous in each eyeball shrinks. People with myopia (near-sightedness) have a greater tendency for a shrinking vitreous to pull away and detach because the eyeball is elongated. That is, there is a farther distance from the lens to the retina.

Far-sighted people have a different shape of the eye, being shorter from front to rear. Therefore there's less chance for a shrinking vitreous to detach.

The vitreous connects to the retina only in three places:

  1. All around the border of the retina
  2. At the point where the optic nerve connects
  3. In the macula (the area of the retina where we have the most detail for central vision)

When the vitreous shrinks, it pulls on the retina and can rip part of the retina off the rear of the eyeball. If you have a detached retina and get it diagnosed in time, you can have it repaired with non-invasive surgery—performed with lasers.

A detached retina is a serious condition. You need to have it repaired quickly!

What Happens After a Posterior Vitreous Detachment?

When the vitreous detaches and separates from the rear of the eye, it usually leaves loose cells floating around. You see these as thread-like strands known as floaters.

If it didn't pull and detach the retina, it's not a serious problem. However, since we don’t know if the flashes are due to a detached vitreous or a detached retina, it’s important to get it checked out immediately.2

As it turned out in my case, I just had a detached vitreous. My retina was okay. Nothing needed to be done. My doctor told me that the floaters would disturb me less over time since the brain “learns” to ignore them.

He was right. It took about a year to stop being bothered by them. I can tell I still have floaters if I pay attention, but otherwise, they don’t bother me anymore.

Eye Floaters

When the vitreous detaches, loose cells float around and look like thread-like strands. We call these "floaters."

When the vitreous detaches, loose cells float around and look like thread-like strands. We call these "floaters."

Floaters Never Disappear, But We Get Used to Them

It's been over ten years since I had the detached vitreous. I still see flashes of light at times. My doctor explained that this comes from the vitreous pulling on the retina since it's not fully detached.

My ophthalmologist said that after the vitreous detaches, there is less of a chance of having a detached retina in the future. Nevertheless, he said it still can happen since it's not fully detached.

I always have a routine annual checkup to be sure things are okay. However, my doctor says if I should ever experience more than the usual floaters, I should get it examined quickly. It could mean that the vitreous is pulling the retina off the rear of the eye. That would need immediate attention to reattach the retina.

I never had a problem with a detached retina, glad to say. Also, I've been getting used to the floaters and hardly notice them anymore.

Video Review

Important Note for Diabetics

Other more severe diseases of the vitreous require more involved repair. Diabetes can cause problems where tiny blood vessels grow into the vitreous. In this case, if the vitreous shrinks and pulls away from the retina, it can detach the retina.

The tearing of these tiny blood vessels can cause bleeding into the vitreous. Although this is rare, anyone who has diabetes needs to consider that.3

To Conclude

When you suddenly see flashes of light and have many floaters, there is no way for you to know if it's a detached retina since the symptoms are similar to PVD, and there is never really any pain involved. So it's best to get it checked out quickly when flashes suddenly occur.

We have superior technology today to help with the diagnosis and treatment of various diseases of the eye. But you need to be proactive. Take care of your eyes by having regular annual checkups with an ophthalmologist.

Reference

  1. Cleveland Clinic. (March 28, 2019). “Flashes and Floaters in Your Eyes: When to See the Doctor.”
  2. Patrick J. Skerrett. (April 16, 2020). “What you can do about floaters and flashes in the eye” - Harvard Medical School
  3. Alan Kozarsky, MD. (February 05, 2019). “Can Diabetes Affect Your Eyes?” WebMD

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2010 Glenn Stok

Comments

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on November 21, 2017:

Rosa - You will get used to it as I mentioned in this article. My floaters don’t bother me anymore. Our brain learns to ignore them. Kind of like a filtering process.

It’s good that your doctor wants to follow up with checking your retina. You definitely always want to be sure that the detached vitreous does not pull the retina off from the rear of your eye. You have a good doctor.

Rosa on November 21, 2017:

I started seeing floaters last weekend, called dr and went in the same day to be checked. Will go back a week later to doublecheck retina. Apparently it is PVD but I'm having a really hard time to work most of my day on my computer, I see a lot of them so annoying and crazy to know that these things will be there forever.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 22, 2010:

I think it can be quite frightening when something goes wrong with our eyes. I think you did a wonderful job of telling us of your experience and explaining the process. I have a friend that had a detached retina which ended his career as a helicopter pilot. He did seek immediate care but things didn't go well. I'm glad that you have learned to live with your situation very well. Rated up.

SteveoMc from Pacific NorthWest on December 22, 2010:

Very good information, my doctor just asked me to get an eye exam just because I haven't had an exam for a couple of years. The warning signs you talked about are good information to have. Rated up.

Wendy Iturrizaga from France on December 22, 2010:

Very interesting information. I am glad I read it, as it looks very important to contact your doctor as soon as possible if you have the symptoms, rather than just wait and see what happens. In a way it is scary to know that such things can happen and have such a long term effect in vision.

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