Flashes and Floaters: Is it an Eye Emergency? - SightMD Skip to main content

January 27, 2022

Flashes and Floaters: Is it an Eye Emergency?

An eye doctor examining a young man through the machine

Patients often wonder, “Is this eye problem I am having an emergency or is it ok to wait a few days to be seen?”. Some eye conditions look serious but are not serious and others can be mildly bothersome, but are actually true eye emergencies. At SightMD, we are available to help you with your eye health and we always take emergencies right away.

What are Floaters?

Flashes and floaters are one of those problems that can be quite serious and you should get to an eye doctor or eye care provider as soon as possible. The eye has fluid in the front of the eye called aqueous. This is the compartment in front of the iris and behind the cornea. The lens of the eye separates the front of the eye or aqueous compartment from the back of the eye called the vitreous compartment. The fluid in the back of the eye called the vitreous is filled with a thicker fluid called vitreous. Vitreous fluid is thicker, sort of like a jelly consistency. The vitreous gel is adherent to the retina, the film in the camera responsible for seeing images and sending those images to the brain. 

As we age, the vitreous begins to thin and usually between 40 to 60 years of age, the vitreous gel can come away from the retina. This process can be silent… we often see patients that have a posterior vitreous detachment (when the gel comes away from the retina) and they don’t even know it. Also, remember, a retinal detachment is when the retina comes off the back of the eye… this is way more serious and can cause permanent vision loss in a short period of time. So what happens during a posterior vitreous detachment when the vitreous gel comes away from the back of the eye.

When the vitreous gel liquifies as we age, at some point it comes away from the retina. As this happens, patients often see a new explosion of floaters that look like spots or dots in their vision. As patients look from left to right, the floaters move back and forth because they are free in the back cavity of the eye. As light comes in the eye, it casts a shadow past the floater or particle in your eye. Floaters can also look like lines, veils, and many other shapes. The appearance of floaters as we go through our life is normal. As a matter of fact, when we are born, the gel in the back of the eye is like crystal-clear jello and by the time we are 80 or 90, there are typically many floaters in the back of the eye. We are lucky that our brains often stop us from continuing to see them all the time.

What are Flashes?

With the process of vitreous detachment, there can be flashes of light that represent areas where the gel is still attached to the retina. When we move our eye back and forth, this area tugs at the retina and creates a flash of light. These flashes of light typically happen in the periphery of our vision and look like a bright flash. This is more concerning because these tugs at the retina can create a tear in the retina. If there is a tear in the retina, fluid can get beneath the retina and cause a retinal detachment. If this occurs, patients typically see a progressive shade that moves across the eye. When flashes and floaters occur, it is important to be seen by an eye doctor, ophthalmologist or optometrist immediately. You should not let a lot of time pass to see what happens next. At SightMD, we have convenient locations and always accept same-day emergencies so that you don’t have to wait longer before having your eye problems addressed.