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As an optometrist, I often have patients presenting who have either experienced flashes and floaters in their vision in the past, or are concerned about new onset of these symptoms. While these symptoms can be alarming and can indicate a serious problem, they can also be a normal aging change in the eye. It is therefore essential to address them promptly to rule out any serious concerns and ensure your eye health remains intact. 

What are Flashes and Floaters?

Let’s start with the basics. Flashes are perceived as brief flickers of light that seem to occur in your peripheral vision. They might resemble lightning bolts or camera flashes and can occur spontaneously or with eye movement. Floaters, on the other hand, are tiny specks or cobweb-like shapes that drift around in your field of vision. These are actually shadows cast by bits of debris floating in the vitreous gel that fills the inside of your eye.

Why Do Flashes and Floaters Happen?

The vitreous gel in your eye undergoes changes as you age. Over time, it can shrink and pull away from the retina, the light-sensitive layer at the back of your eye. When this happens, it can tug on the retina, causing the sensation of flashes. Additionally, as the vitreous shrinks, it can sometimes clump together, casting shadows on the retina and leading to floaters.

When to Be Concerned:

While flashes and floaters are often benign, there are situations where they could indicate a more serious issue. If you suddenly notice a significant increase in the number of floaters, especially accompanied by flashes of light or a shadow moving across your vision, it could be a sign of a retinal tear or detachment. These conditions require immediate attention to prevent permanent vision loss.


What to Do:

If you experience new onset flashes and floaters, here’s what you should do:

  1. Remain Calm: While it’s natural to feel anxious when you notice changes in your vision, try to stay calm. In many cases, flashes and floaters are harmless.
  2. Schedule an Eye Exam: Contact your optometrist to schedule an eye exam as soon as possible. Please make sure to inform our staff of your new onset symptoms. The Optometrist will conduct a thorough evaluation of your eyes to determine the cause of your symptoms. This will usually include dilation drops to ensure we can rule out any peripheral retinal tears or holes. These drops will make you blurry for a few hours following instillation and as such it is best not to drive until your vision has returned to normal. 
  3. Don’t Wait: Time is of the essence when it comes to addressing retinal issues. If you suspect a retinal tear or detachment, seek medical attention immediately.
  4. Follow Your Optometrist’s Recommendations: Depending on the results of your eye exam, your Optometrist will recommend an appropriate course of action. This may include observation and review in 6 weeks or referral to an ophthalmologist for an opinion or management which could include laser treatment or surgery.

New onset flashes and floaters can be unsettling, but they don’t always indicate a serious problem. However, it’s crucial to have your eyes evaluated by a professional to rule out any underlying issues. By remaining vigilant and seeking prompt medical attention when needed, you can help preserve your vision for years to come. Remember, your eye health is too precious to ignore.