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Why Sudden Floaters or Flashes Signal a Serious Eye Problem

Why Sudden Floaters or Flashes Signal a Serious Eye Problem

If you suddenly see in your visual field dark specks (floaters) and lightning bolts (flashes), which seem to move with your head in all directions, is it nothing serious, or should you see an ophthalmologist? The answer could go either way, but it’s best if you take any such event seriously.

At Retina Specialists, our expert team of ophthalmologists understands what the intricacies of flashes and floaters are, what causes them, and how they’re treated. Here, the team describes what these visual disturbances mean and when you should make an urgent appointment at one of our five locations in and around Dallas, Texas.

What causes floaters, and are these causes dangerous?

Floaters develop for a number of reasons, some of which are harmless and some of which require immediate attention. Here are the most common reasons:


Your body changes in numerous ways as you get older, and along the way you may experience some uncomfortable effects.

The vitreous chamber lies in the middle of your eyeball, and it’s filled with a gel-like material, the vitreous humor. Floaters are merely small, solidified parts of that humor. Over the years, the vitreous chamber naturally starts to contract, and the movement of the gel causes the small particles to move around.

At the back of your eye lies the retina, the light-sensitive tissue that converts the incoming light into electrical signals that it sends to the brain via the optic nerve. If vitreal floaters move in front of the macula (the central 2% of the retinal tissue), they cast a shadow or shape onto it. The macula incorporates the shadow as part of what you “see,” and your brain compiles everything into the final image.

Vitreal floaters are very common, and when they’re caused by the contraction of the vitreous chamber, you generally don’t require any treatment. Eventually, these particles settle to the bottom of the chamber, and you don’t see them as readily. However, if you suddenly see a burst of floaters, it’s important that you come in as soon as possible so we can determine if they are or aren’t caused by a more serious condition.

Retinal tears

Sometimes when the vitreous contracts, it pulls on the retina so strongly that the retinal tissue tears, and you see lots of floaters. And because a tear may lead to a full retinal detachment  — which can lead to vision loss —  this is an emergency situation. Call us as soon as possible for an emergency appointment.

Retinal detachment

A retinal detachment occurs when fluid seeps through a retinal tear, increasing the pressure on the retina until the entire structure pulls away from its supporting tissue.

Retinal detachments usually happen suddenly, most often due to a blow to the head from a car accident or sports injury. Detachments usually come with a higher-than-normal level of floaters, as well as lightning bolts and flashes of light and a gray curtain that clouds your vision. As with a retinal tear, this is a medical emergency. If the sudden burst of floaters is accompanied by flashing lights, come into the office immediately or go to the nearest ER. You need prompt treatment to save your sight.

Vitreous hemorrhage

A hemorrhage refers to a bleed, and a sudden spate of floaters could indicate bleeding into the vitreous body, which is most often caused by hypertension, blocked blood vessels, and eye injuries. Hemorrhaging also occurs with diabetic retinopathy, a diabetes-related condition that weakens the retina’s blood vessels and can cause them to grow on instead of behind the retinal tissue. The floaters you see in this case aren’t solidified humor, but are blood cells in the vitreous.

You should, of course, see your primary doctor about controlling your blood sugar levels, but you also need to come into Retina Specialists for an evaluation, since a hemorrhage can destroy vision too.

What causes flashes, and are these causes dangerous?

Flashes can appear in a number of different forms, such as streaks of lightning, little twinkling specks of light, or zigzags. 

Flashes also have a number of causes, some more serious than others. One of these is migraine with aura. Migraine is a neurological disorder that has discrete phases, which may include an aura. In this stage, you might see zigzag lines, lightning bolts, or twinkling lights. None of these are dangerous; they’re just a symptom of the underlying condition.

Flashes can also occur when the vitreous humor either pulls at or rubs against your retina; they’re a warning sign that you’re at risk of a retinal tear or detachment, and you need treatment ASAP.

The bottom line? If you suddenly see flashes and/or floaters, come into the office to be evaluated. Your sight is too important to risk.

Give Retina Specialists a call at any of our locations to schedule a consultation with one of our ophthalmologists  today.

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