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

The shapes appear to float in front of everything that a person looks at.

Read more about the symptoms of floaters

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 is these shadows you will see.

Floaters can occur as your eyes change with age. In most cases, they do not cause significant problems and do not 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 cannot be prevented because they are 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.

Your optician may refer you to an ophthalmologist (a specialist in diagnosing and treating eye conditions) who can check your retina for tears.

Even though floaters are usually harmless and do not 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.

Treating floaters

In most cases, floaters do not cause major problems and do not require treatment. Eye drops or similar types of medication will not make floaters disappear.

After a while, your brain learns to ignore floaters and you may not notice them. If a floater appears in your direct line of vision, moving your eye up and down may help. This causes the vitreous humour in your eye to move around, which can shift the floater elsewhere.

If your floaters do not 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.

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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 do not affect vision. 

However, you should visit an optician to have your eyes examined if you suddenly develop floaters or if you notice an increase in the number floaters.

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Page last reviewed: 13/11/2012

Next review due: 13/11/2014