You’re going about your day as usual when suddenly you notice a strange spot floating across your vision. Maybe it looks like a circle or perhaps a long string. But as soon as you look at it, the spot darts out of view. What was that?

These “eye floaters,” which can also include eye flashes in vision, are a common occurrence and are usually harmless. However, a significant change in eye floaters or flashes can signal a more serious eye condition.

Learn more about this visual phenomenon, including the symptoms and causes of eye floaters, and when it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor.

Eye floaters are spots in your vision. They can appear in different shapes and sizes, including circles, wiggly lines, rings or webs, and often seem to float lazily across your field of vision. Sometimes they can cast a brief shadow over what you see.

While it can be unnerving to see dark spots or have a visual blob affecting an area of your sight, eye floaters are usually harmless. Most people experience them occasionally throughout their life, and eye floaters typically happen more often as we age.

What are eye flashes?

Eye flashes are bright spots that appear in your vision like a flash of light or a streak of lightning. Similar to eye floaters, they usually aren’t a cause for concern. Below, we cover the signs that indicate you should seek care for your eye flashes.

What causes eye floaters?

Floaters are usually caused by normal changes to your eyes, including changes related to aging. When you have an eye floater, here’s what’s happening inside your eye.

Your eye is filled with a gel-like substance called vitreous, which is made up of a protein called collagen. As you age, tiny fibers of collagen form together into clumps, which then float within the eye.

The retina is the part of the eye that detects floaters – it’s the layer at the very back of the eyeball that converts light into electrical signals for the brain to interpret as images. Light enters your eye and shines onto the retina. When one of those floaters drifts by, it blocks the light, casting a shadow on the retina. The brain then sees a floating shape, string or shadow in your vision.

Flashes are slightly different – they happen when the vitreous contracts and pulls on your retina. A flash every now and then is normal, but if you notice more flashes than usual or flashes associated with new floaters, it could be a sign of a more serious condition and you should see a doctor right away.

Symptoms: What do eye floaters look like?

Eye floaters can appear in many different forms, including:

  • Small, ambiguous shapes that float in and out of your vision
  • Thin, transparent strings or webs that float past
  • Black or gray spots
  • Spots that dart away when you move your eyes or try to look at them
  • Spots that are most noticeable when there’s a bright background, like when you’re looking out a window, up at the sky or at a white wall

The majority of the time, eye floaters are normal and harmless. You may notice them more frequently as you age, and that’s to be expected. But sometimes eye floaters, flashes and black spots in vision can be a sign of something more serious, such as a torn retina or a detached retina that could lead to permanent vision loss.

Retinal issues are serious and need to be treated promptly, so it’s important to either call your primary care provider’s nurse line or an eye specialist right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • A significant or sudden increase in floaters or black spots
  • An increase in flashes, especially if associated with new floaters
  • A shadow that appears in one part of your vision
  • Vision loss on one side or darkness in one area of your vision
  • Floaters after eye trauma or eye surgery
  • A gray curtain that seems to cover part of your vision

Evaluation for eye floaters

To examine your eyes and look for any problems, an eye care specialist – either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist – will dilate your eyes and use a special device with a bright light and magnifying lens to inspect the inside of your eye. They can see all the tiny details and check the retina to make sure there isn’t a tear or detachment. In the majority of cases, patients are experiencing simple eye floaters and flashes, which resolve on their own without treatment.

Treatment for eye floaters

While occasional eye floaters are normal, they can become inconvenient or irritating. Most eye floaters don’t require treatment, but if you’re bothered by them, try moving your eyes. Looking up and down a few times is most effective – it shifts the fluids in your eyes and may move the specks out of your vision. Over time, your brain will adjust and learn to ignore the floaters.

When large or dense eye floaters persist and interfere with your daily activities, an eye care provider might recommend a surgery called a vitrectomy. This procedure involves removing the vitreous and replacing the fluid with a saline-like salt solution.

In cases when there is a retinal tear or detachment, prompt diagnosis and treatment is important to prevent permanent vision loss.

Who is at risk for eye floaters?

Most people experience eye floaters from time to time, especially as they get older. But some of us are at a higher risk for getting them, including people who:

  • Are nearsighted
  • Have had inflammation (swelling) inside the eye
  • Have had cataract surgery
  • Have diabetes
  • Have had an eye injury

Talk to a doctor about eye floaters

If you have questions about eye floaters or other vision concerns, get started by scheduling an eye exam with an optometrist. Optometrists are eye care specialists who can do vision tests and diagnose and treat common eye conditions. And if needed, they can refer you to an ophthalmologist for more specialized eye care.