As we get older, many of us will experience visual symptoms such as floaters or flashes of light. These symptoms can range from slightly alarming to very annoying. Most of the time, flashes of light and floaters in your vision are caused by a normal aging process occurring within the eye. However, in rare occasions, they can indicate a serious threat to the health of your retina. Continue reading to learn more about these symptoms and their risks.
At some point in their life, many people will notice small specks, spots, or floating dots in their vision which are commonly referred to as floaters. Floaters begin to develop as normal age-related changes occur to the gel that fills the inside the eye. This gel, called the vitreous, fills the eye and gives the eye its shape and structure. When we are young, the vitreous has a thicker texture, similar to gelatin. As we age the vitreous becomes more liquid-like in consistency, but clumps of the thick gel with remain. These clumps will cast a shadow on the back of the eye, which is what we perceive as floaters. Floaters are typically more noticeable in certain lighting situations, like looking at a bright computer screen. Overtime most people agree that floaters become less noticeable or less bothersome. In most cases, they are a harmless condition that does not require treatment.
Sometimes floaters are accompanied by the perception of flashes of light in the periphery. Many people describe this phenomenon as a camera flash or lightning bolt that they notice out of the side of their vision. Similar to floaters, these flashes of light are also caused by changes to the vitreous gel inside the eye. The vitreous is lightly attached to the retina in several areas. As the vitreous begins to liquify with age, it begins to slowly pull away from the retina, and these areas of attachment begin to release. This detachment of the vitreous from the retina causes traction on the cells in the retina, which our brain perceives a flash of light. The process of the vitreous separating from the retina is called a posterior vitreous detachment and is a very common occurrence. The older you are, the more likely you are to experience a posterior vitreous detachment, or a PVD. The process can take several weeks to months to complete, and flashes of light may be noticed throughout the entire process. When the PVD is complete and the vitreous is entirely separated from the retina, the symptoms should stop.
In some rare cases, flashes of light or a sudden increase or change in floaters can be a sign of retinal problems. During the process of a posterior vitreous detachment, there is a risk of the traction of the vitreous creating a tear in the retinal tissue. These tears can increase the risk of further complications, including a retinal detachment. If left untreated, a retinal detachment has the risk of permanent vision loss. Symptoms such as changes in floaters, increased flashes of light in your vision, or a curtain or veil in the side of your vision should be evaluated by your optometrist.