Floaters are small cloudy particles that float within the vitreous, the jelly-like fluid that fills the inner portion of the eye. They are comprised of small flecks of protein or other matter that are trapped during the formation of your eyes before birth and remain suspended in the clear fluid of the vitreous. Floaters usually appear as semi-transparent specks of various shapes and sizes. People often describe them as looking like a string, a bug, a spider, a cobweb, a net or even a cotton ball. They can be seen when they fall within your line of sight and cast a shadow on the retina (the light sensitive portion of the eye). Floaters are usually visible when you are looking at a plain-lighted background such as a blue sky or white pages of a book. Deterioration of the vitreous fluid may cause floaters to develop. This can be part of the natural aging process and is often not serious, although it can be very annoying.

With age, the jelly-like vitreous can shrink. Shrinkage can continue and cause the membrane around the vitreous to detach or pull away from the back of the eye. The pulling causes the retinal receptor cells to be stimulated and "fire" by this tugging action. This may result in the perception of light flashes. On rare occasions, vitreous can pull strong enough on the retina to cause a small tear or hole. The damaged part of the retina subsequently does not work properly and a blonde or blurred spot in vision may result. If untreated, retinal tears or holes can continue to worsen sometimes leading to a retinal detachment. Severe vision loss can result if the retina becomes detached. This can be seen as a curtain or loss of peripheral vision.

It is important to have an Optomap Retinal Examination or dilated eye examination if you experience flashes or floaters, or if you become aware of an increase in the number or intensity of flashes or floaters. In a dilated eye examination, your doctor will use a variety of special instruments to look at the vitreous, the retina and the other interior parts of your eyes to determine the causes of the flashes and floaters that you see. Most importantly your doctor will determine if holes or tears are present.

While flashes and floaters can be symptoms of either a vitreous detachment or a retinal detachment, vitreous detachment occurs more frequently and usually requires no treatment. Floaters tend to last longer than flashes. The flashes usually subside after a few weeks and the floaters tend to fade out over several months as they move forward in the eye. Often they do not go away completely. Most people learn to ignore them. Vitreous detachment should be monitored at least annually to determine if it is stable. Flashes and new floaters should be evaluated with an Optomap Retinal Examination or dilated eye examination to determine if any holes or tears are forming.