When Flashes and Floaters Require Emergency Eye Care

Jul 12, 2023
When Flashes and Floaters Require Emergency Eye Care
Random floaters and occasional light flashes are a common side effect of normal age-related eye changes. Find out when these routine visual disturbances are cause for concern — and when they’re a sign of a vision-threatening eye emergency.

Eye flashes and floaters are sudden streaks of light and dark drifting spots in your vision that tend to fade away as quickly as they appeared. Anyone can experience these strange visual manifestations, but they’re most common in aging adults.

Whether they occur separately or together, occasional eye floaters and flashes of light are usually harmless. Their abrupt and sustained appearance, however, can be a warning sign of a vision-threatening ocular health problem that requires prompt emergency eye care

Here, experienced optometrist Dr. Markiel Yakubov of Elite Eye Care discusses the ins and outs of eye flashes and floaters, and explains when their appearance is cause for immediate concern. 

What are eye floaters and flashes?

Floaters may appear as dark specks, strings, or webs that drift around when you move your eyes, and seem to dart away and disappear if you try to focus on them. Known by the medical term myodesopsias, floaters tend to be more prominent when you’re looking toward a clear daytime sky, a blank piece of paper, or a white wall. 

Floaters may appear on their own, or they may occur alongside spots of light called flashes. Known by the medical term photopsias, eye flashes are sudden “lightning streaks” that shoot across your field of vision and briefly cause you to “see stars.” 

Why do floaters and flashes occur?

Most floaters and flashes are a common and typically harmless consequence of the normal aging process. Both these visual disturbances are a product of changes in the vitreous, or the gel-like fluid that fills each eye and gives them shape.

Your changing vitreous 

Vitreous fluid is replete with tiny fibers that attach to your retina, or the light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of your eye. As you get older, changes in vitreous gel consistency cause its fibers to pull away from the retina. Known as vitreous detachment, this normal, age-related eye condition is more likely after the age of 50.

Signs of vitreous detachment

Floaters are projected onto your vision by clumps floating within the changing vitreous fluid. Specifically, as this gel-like fluid becomes more liquid with age, its detaching microscopic fibers can clump together and can cast tiny shadows (floaters) on your retina. 

When part of the vitreous still adheres to the retina during this normal separation, you may see flashes, too. Flashes appear in your field of vision when the vitreous rubs, pulls, or tugs on the retinal wall, creating tension.

Normal and harmless, or dangerous?

Noticing eye floaters in your field of vision, with or without occasional flashes, is normal as you get older. Even so, it’s important to let Dr. Yakubov know about occasional floaters and flashes at your regular eye examination visit so he can investigate the problem thoroughly. 

Normal and harmless 

When you report floaters and/or flashes, Dr. Yakubov conducts a comprehensive dilated eye exam to get a clear look at the insides of your eyes. He evaluates the floaters and checks your retina to ensure it’s not damaged. If everything looks normal, he continues to monitor the situation at each successive eye exam.

Questionable and concerning

It’s recommended that you schedule a separate appointment (outside your regular exam visit) any time you notice new floaters and flashes, or an uptick in floaters. It’s also important to see Dr. Yakubov if you have persistent floaters and you’re younger than 50. 

In such cases, having regular eye exams becomes even more important, as this allows Dr. Yakubov to keep track of how your vitreous is shrinking over time — and help you prevent more serious eye problems later.

An emergency eye problem

If you notice a sudden, heavy onset of floaters, especially if they’re accompanied by recurrent light flashes or loss of peripheral vision, see Dr. Yakubov right away. These can be warning signs of a severe retinal tear or full retinal detachment, serious eye emergencies that can lead to vision loss without prompt treatment.

The bottom line on floaters and flashes

Random eye floaters and occasional flashes may be a normal part of the aging process, but worsening floaters and chronic floaters before the age of 50 are cause for concern. Always have floaters evaluated by an expert — and seek immediate care any time you experience sudden, heavy floaters and flashes. 

Knowing that heavy floaters and repeated flashes are an emergency eye problem could save your vision.

To learn more or make an emergency eye care appointment at Elite Eye Care, call or click online to schedule a visit at your nearest New York City location today: We have one office in Brooklyn, and four offices throughout the Bronx.