My father was an optometrist, and I grew up hearing him say, “Take care of your eyes. They’re the only pair you’ll ever get.” I did. I read with good lighting and used eyeglasses faithfully (contacts, now) for my nearsightedness.
Several people in my family have had macular degeneration and detached retinas, so I now supplement my diet and multivitamins with a formula of vitamins and herbs to nourish my eyes and a diet high in antioxidants. So I was both surprised and frightened to suddenly see a large floating shadow move across my vision accompanied by flashing lights.
It was dusk on a Friday evening and I was driving. From the right hand corner of my vision I saw an arc of light that flashed whenever I turned my head in a particular direction. It wouldn’t stop, and it disturbed me. The shadow and the flashes continued through the weekend. On the following Monday morning, I spoke with my optometrist who insisted on seeing me immediately. “It’s probably nothing serious,” he told me, “But I just want to make sure.” After dilating my eyes and thoroughly examining them, he told me I did, indeed, have a large floater along with flashes.
A Look at Floaters
Floaters look like grey or black specks in front of our eyes that move when our eyes move. When eyes start or stop, the floaters usually drift a bit. Floaters may be tiny or large enough to be annoying. They’re commonly a sign of aging eyes.
Our eyeballs contain a jelly-like substance called the vitreous humor that fills most of the space between the lens and retina. It is mostly water with some collagens and a nutrient called hyaluronic acid (HA). As we age, the vitreous humor begins to break down — more frequently with nearsighted people like me. It can also happen from an injury or inflammation in your eye, or if you get struck in the head. Lifting heavy objects, straining from constipation, coughing, or rubbing our eyes can all cause changes to the vitreous.
Floaters commonly occur when some of the vitreous separates from the retina. Bits of material accumulating in the vitreous humor cast a shadow on your retina — the floater. Most of the time they are not only common, but safe. Occasionally, they’re not.
A floater that becomes larger and looks a little red or purple may be due to a hemorrhage caused by a tear in the retina. Multiple floaters accompanied by a loss of vision may be a sign of inflammation. A sudden increase in floaters can also signal a deterioration of the vitreous. Always have an ophthalmologist check your eyes immediately if you experience any of these changes to rule out a more serious underlying condition requiring treatment.
Flashes are tiny bright lights caused by a pulling on the retina. They occur in more than 70 percent of adults and are just annoying once you understand them. But if they increase, it may be from a tear that can lead to a detached retina. Fortunately, only a small fraction of people with retinal tears progress to detached retinas. If you have flashes that have been checked out and suddenly change in number or frequency, see an ophthalmologist immediately. Flashes that come from retinal tears may require laser treatment or freezing to repair the retina. The more common flashes from tugging on the retina need no treatment.
Flashes From Migraines
People who get migraines may see flashing lights, but these are different from the flashes I’ve talked about. Migraine-associated lights are usually shimmering lights that remain for 15 minutes or longer. A throbbing headache, often on one side of the head, appears when the lights disappear.