Floaters are small shapes that some people see floating in their field of vision.
They can be different shapes and sizes and may look like:
tiny black dots
small, shadowy dots
larger cloud-like spots
long, narrow strands
You may have many small floaters in your field of vision or just one or two larger ones. Most floaters are small and quickly move out of your field of vision.
Floaters are often most noticeable when you’re looking at a light-coloured background, such as a white wall or clear sky.
Do floaters affect vision?
Floaters sometimes occur without a person noticing them. This is because the brain constantly adapts to changes in vision and learns to ignore floaters so they don’t affect vision.
Floaters are usually harmless and don’t significantly affect your vision. However, it’s important you have your eyes checked by an optician regularly (at least once every two years).
Larger floaters can be distracting and may make activities involving high levels of concentration, such as reading or driving, difficult.
What causes floaters?
Floaters are small pieces of debris that float in the eye’s vitreous humour. Vitreous humour is a clear, jelly-like substance that fills the space in the middle of the eyeball.
The debris casts shadows on to the retina (the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye). If you have floaters, it’s these shadows you’ll see.
Floaters can occur as your eyes change with age. In most cases, they don’t cause significant problems and don’t require treatment.
In rare cases, floaters may be a sign of a retinal tear or retinal detachment (where the retina starts to pull away from the blood vessels that supply it with oxygen and nutrients).
Read more about the causes of floaters.
Floaters can’t be prevented because they’re part of the natural ageing process.
When to seek medical help
Visit your optician immediately if you notice an increase or sudden change in your floaters, particularly if you notice white flashes and some loss of vision.
Your optician may refer you to an ophthalmologist (a specialist in diagnosing and treating eye conditions) who can check your retina for tears or retinal detachment.
Even though floaters are usually harmless and don’t significantly affect your vision, it’s important you have your eyes checked regularly by an optician (at least once every two years).
Read more about diagnosing floaters.
In most cases, floaters don’t cause major problems and don’t require treatment. Eye drops or similar types of medication won’t make floaters disappear.
After a while, your brain learns to ignore floaters and you may not notice them.
If your floaters don’t improve over time, or if they significantly affect your vision, a vitrectomy may be recommended. This is a surgical operation to remove the vitreous humour in your eye along with any floating debris and replace it with a saline (salty) solution.
If your retina has become detached, surgery is the only way to re-attach it. Without surgery, a total loss of vision is almost certain. In 90% of cases, only one operation is needed to re-attach the retina.
Read more about treating floaters.