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Eyes: Detached retinas and floaters

Prompt treatment for a detached retina can prevent serious and permanent damage to the eye.

They're known as floaters, and they can make you feel like you're seeing things. And you are. But what you see is inside, not outside, your eye.

These objects, which look like specks or clouds, may show up when you're looking at a plain background, such as a wall or the sky, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).

What are floaters?

Floaters are tiny clumps of cells or gel inside your eye. They cast shadows on the retina, which creates the appearance that something's floating in front of you.

Floaters develop when the vitreous gel inside the eye thickens or shrinks and pulls away from the back wall of the eye.

This is more common in middle-aged people, particularly those who:

  • Are nearsighted.
  • Have had cataract operations.
  • Have had an inflammation inside the eye.

In some cases, the retina can tear if gel pulls away from the wall of the eye. This is always a serious problem, the AAO says.

When to see a doctor

According to the AAO, you should see a doctor right away if you develop many floaters suddenly or if you see flashes of light all of a sudden. These are possible signs of a detached retina, which requires immediate medical treatment.

You may notice other symptoms, the AAO says, such as a shadow appearing in your peripheral vision or part of your field of vision being covered in gray.

A detached retina can happen spontaneously or because of injury, nearsightedness or aging.

While some floaters interfere seriously with vision, most fade away over time or become less bothersome.

By looking in your eyes, an eye doctor can determine whether what you're seeing is harmless or if treatment is required, the American Optometric Association says.

About 90% of detached retinas can be repaired with surgery. Some will require more than one treatment, and the final result of the surgery may not be apparent for several months. The results of surgery are best when the problem is treated early.

Reviewed 6/1/2022

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