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Flashes & Floaters

Flashes & Floaters: What’s Normal & What’s Cause for Alarm

Our eyes are delicate, intricate little organs which sometimes send us messages we don’t fully understand. Knowing the basic structure of your eye and how it works can go a long way for your eye care routine. This way, you know what to expect, what’s normal, and what isn’t.

Those tiny floating shapes in your eye fluid can be irritating. Could they be a sign of an underlying problem? What about those seemingly random flashes of light? Are they an issue?

What is a Flash?

The retina is a system of tissues coating the back of the eye. When light hits the retina, it sends an electrical impulse through the optic nerve to the brain, which receives it as an image. This system works wonderfully. However, the retina is very, very sensitive. As a result, if anything touches, tugs on, or moves the retina, it’s enough to stimulate the retina into sending out an electrical impulse. Your brain receives that impulse as a flash of light.

This is why flashes frequently occur when you land after a fall or hit your head; the impact is enough to startle the retina into sending an impulse to the brain.

Head Wounds Always Require a Doctor

If you do injure your head, you need to see a doctor. Even if you don’t experience repeating flashes or a shower of floaters, you need to have a medical professional examine you. Your head houses the control centre of your body; something you can’t afford to gamble with.

What is a Floater?

The substance inside your eye is called the vitreous. At birth, the vitreous has a gel-like consistency. But as you age, the vitreous starts to dissolve into a more liquid state. Sometimes, pieces of the vitreous remain in gel-form; floating around in the liquid. The strange shapes you see floating in the corners of your vision are simply these undissolved vitreous pieces.

Can Floaters be Cured?

For the most part, floaters don’t require treatment as they are a normal part of your eye. However, if your floaters are so many or so large that they impair your vision, they can be removed.

In a procedure called a vitrectomy, an ophthalmologist will remove the vitreous, replacing it with saline. This not only removes current floaters; it removes the potential for future floaters.

Knowing When It’s Time to Ask For Help

Both flashes of light and mysterious floating shapes are normal to a certain extent. The trick is knowing at what point it stops being normal, and starts being something to worry about.

If you experience a flash of light when your body is suddenly jerked, like on a carnival ride, that’s normal. What’s not normal, however, is when these flashes come out of nowhere, with no related movements or circumstances. It is particularly serious when you start to see repetitive flashes, or they seem to be coming in waves. If this happens, it is imperative that you seek medical attention immediately.

Seeing an occasional squiggly line, doughnut shape, or mysterious clump in your peripheral vision is very normal. These floaters are a natural part of the eye and no reason for concern. However, when your floaters change in size, shape, or frequency, it could be a signal that something’s wrong. This is especially true if you start to experience a sudden onslaught of floaters in what appears to be a downward shower, accompanied by repeated flashes of light. These are symptoms of a retinal tear or detachment which will require immediate intervention to save the vision in that eye.

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