Profile of an elderly person's eyes

At a glance: Floaters

  • Symptoms:

    Small dark spots or squiggly lines that float across your vision

  • Diagnosis:

    Dilated eye exam

  • Treatment:

    None (in most cases), surgery

What are floaters?

Floaters are small dark shapes that float across your vision. They can look like spots, threads, squiggly lines, or even little cobwebs.

Most people have floaters that come and go, and they often don’t need treatment. But sometimes floaters can be a sign of a more serious eye condition. So if you notice new floaters that appear suddenly and don’t go away, it’s important to tell your eye doctor.

What are the symptoms of floaters?

Floaters move as your eyes move — so when you try to look at them directly, they seem to move away. When your eyes stop moving, floaters keep drifting across your vision.

You may notice floaters more when you look at something bright, like white paper or a blue sky.

Am I at risk for floaters?

Almost everyone develops floaters as they get older, but some people are at higher risk. You’re at higher risk if you:

  • Are very nearsighted
  • Have diabetes
  • Have had surgery to treat cataracts

What causes floaters?

Floaters usually happen because of normal changes in your eyes. As you age, tiny strands of your vitreous (the gel-like fluid that fills your eye) stick together and cast shadows on your retina (the light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye). Those shadows appear as floaters.

Sometimes floaters have more serious causes, including:

  • Eye infections
  • Eye injuries
  • Uveitis (inflammation in the eye)
  • Bleeding in the eye
  • Vitreous detachment (when the vitreous pulls away from the retina)
  • Retinal tear (when vitreous detachment tears a hole in the retina)
  • Retinal detachment (when the retina gets pulled away from the back of the eye)
woman getting an eye exam

When to get help right away

Sometimes new floaters can be a sign of a retinal tear or retinal detachment — when the retina gets torn or pulled from its normal position at the back of the eye.

Symptoms can include:

  • A lot of new floaters that appear suddenly, sometimes with flashes of light 
  • A dark shadow (like a curtain) or blurry area in your side or central vision

Retinal tear or detachment can be a medical emergency. If you have these symptoms, it’s important to go to your eye doctor or the emergency room right away.

How will my eye doctor check for floaters?

Your eye doctor can check for floaters as part of a dilated eye exam. Your doctor will give you some eye drops to dilate (widen) your pupil and then check your eyes for floaters and other eye problems.

This exam is usually painless. The doctor may press on your eyelids to check for retinal tears, which may be uncomfortable for some people.

What’s the treatment for floaters?

Treatment for floaters depends on the cause. If your floaters are caused by another eye condition, you may need treatment for that condition.

If your floaters are caused by aging and they don’t bother you, then you probably won’t need any treatment.

If your floaters make it hard to see clearly and interfere with your daily life, your eye doctor might suggest a surgery called a vitrectomy to remove the floaters. Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of this surgery.  

Last updated: September 22, 2020