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Excerpted from Triad's Eye Care Notes 1989-2005 by Triad Publishing Co.

Floaters are translucent specks that seem to float about in your field of vision. Some floaters are normal, and most people have them, but they don't usually notice them unless they become numerous or more prominent. Floaters can look like cobwebs or squiggly lines or floating bugs. They become more apparent when you look at something plain and bright, such as white paper or a blue sky, and are more evident when they are stirred up, such as when you move your eyes. You may be especially aware of them when you look through an optical instrument, such as a microscope or binoculars. Floaters are more common and seem to be more annoying to people who are nearsighted or who have had a cataract operation.

What Are These Floating Specks?

Much of the interior of the human eyeball is filled with vitreous, a clear, thick substance that helps in maintaining the eye's round shape. Light passes through the vitreous (after being focused by the cornea and lens) to reach the retina, where images are formed. Any bits of tissue moving about in the vitreous cast shadows onto the retina, and you see those shadows as things "floating" in your field of vision.

How Do Floaters Get There?

Before birth, there is a large blood vessel in the vitreous, but by birth the vessel is no longer required and it disintegrates -- but not completely. A few broken-up particles remain for life and float around. These are the floaters that everyone has. Other occurrences can add more floaters. As your eyes age, the vitreous may become stringy, and the strands cast tiny shadows on the retina. Bits of debris from other tissues in the eye may fall into the vitreous. Floaters may come from old or new bleeding within the eye. They may be the result of a disease that causes opaque deposits in the vitreous or of an ocular inflammation that causes cellular debris, or they may be residual from an old injury.

Are Floaters a Serious Problem?

In most cases floaters are simply an annoyance. An eye examination will usually reveal if there's something serious that needs medical attention. The sudden appearance of new floaters, sometimes accompanied by apparent flashes of light ("lightning streaks") in the visual periphery, can be a sign you have had a vitreous detachment, a frequent consequence of aging that is not usually serious. These same symptoms can also be a danger sign that a retinal tear has occurred. The only way to find out the reason for these sudden new floaters is by having a complete eye examination, followed by another one about six weeks later.

Can Floaters Be Removed?

Whenever floaters interfere with vision, you can shift them out of your line of sight by moving your eyes around quickly, side-to-side or up-and-down. The only way to permanently get rid of them is by surgical removal, and since they are rarely more than a nuisance, the benefit of surgery would not warrant the risks. Surgery might be considered necessary only if the cells and debris are so dense and numerous that they interfere with useful vision, but this is very rare. Almost everyone learns to ignore them and simply live with them.

Taking Care of Your EyesExcerpted from Triad's Eye Care Notes 1989-2005 by Triad Publishing Co.

Patients: for more information about your eyes, see: Taking Care of Your Eyes: A Collection of the Patient Education Handouts Used by America's Leading Eye Doctors

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