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Seeing clearly through spots and 'floaters'

March 16, 2015 | Kristina Lindgren
eye floaters

Are you seeing spots? Do squiggles or tiny cobwebs drift across your field of vision?

If so, you may be experiencing a common and usually benign symptom of aging, says UC Irvine Health ophthalmologist Dr. Mitul Mehta.

Why floaters occur

These shadowy flecks, known as “floaters,” are collagen fibers that cluster in the vitreous humor, a gel-like fluid that fills the eyeball. As we age, the gel begins to shrink and break down, creating threads or specks that cast a shadow on the retina, the light-sensitive lining of the back of the eye.

Sometimes, the shrinking gel can tear the membrane, which can result in part or all of the retina becoming detached from its blood supply at the back of the eyeball, a potentially serious condition that – left untreated – can lead to blindness, says Mehta, a retina specialist with the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute.

“The retina is made up of rods and cones that allow you to see,” he says. “Once they’re damaged, they don’t heal, so you need to reattach the retina to the blood supply as quickly as possible.”

Retinal detachment symptoms

Signs of this more serious condition include a rush of new floaters, flashes of light, a dark curtain or loss of peripheral vision. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s imperative to get checked out immediately by an eye specialist who can determine whether you need surgery.

“Every day the retina is detached, you’re losing rods and cones,” Mehta says. “If I can put the retina back in place as soon as possible, the patient can get close to 100 percent recovery.”

Floaters can also accompany a trauma to the head or body. Mehta’s football-playing brother experienced that in his late teens. “Luckily for him, the doctor found no retinal tears and he was fine.”

Most people who see floaters have no further problems and eventually get used to them. But Mehta says it’s a good idea to have your eyes checked by an ophthalmologist just to be sure the retina is intact and healthy.

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