Flashes & floaters

Many people get flashes or floaters at some time in their lives. They tend to be more common in older people and are usually not serious, however there are some circumstances that require urgent investigation. Read on to understand when you need to be concerned.


What are flashes & floaters?

This involves seeing flashes or arcs of light, sparkling lights or a flashing on and off at the edge of your vision. These are only perceived flashes of light, which aren't visible to other people.

Floaters are small dots or squiggly lines that seem to float in front of your vision. You can often see them better if you stare at a light solid-coloured surface. If you try to look at them directly, they seem to dart away, but they drift when you stop moving your eyes.

Flashes and floaters are usually not serious.


What causes flashes & floaters?

The most common cause of these symptoms is posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). The eye is filled with a gel called the vitreous fluid. As we age, the gel becomes more watery and pulls away from the wall at the back of the eye, causing PVD. This condition is so common that 75 percent of people over 65 years of age get it.

Much less commonly, flashes and floaters can be caused by retinal detachment. The retina, a thin film lining at the back of the eye, is responsible for receiving light rays in the eye and making sense of them. In retinal detachment, it tears away from the wall of the eye. Although uncommon, when this occurs it needs to be treated urgently because it can sometimes lead to permanent loss of sight.


When should I worry that my flashes & floaters are serious?

If you have any of the following symptoms, you may be experiencing retinal detachment. You should seek advice from your optician or GP urgently, or go to A&E. You can also call NHS 111 straight away for advice, if you have the following symptoms:

• Sudden increase of flashes and floaters

• You see a dark curtain or shadow falling across your vision

• Blurred vision

• Floaters appear after eye injury or surgery

• Pain in one or both of your eyes


Who is at risk of retinal detachment?

You're at risk if:

• You're short-sighted (can't see objects from a distance)

• You've had eye surgery such as cataract surgery

• You've had an eye injury

• You have a family history of retinal detachment


What is the treatment for flashes & floaters?

You may see more flashes and floaters when experiencing PVD, but these decrease in amount and intensity as time goes by. In rare cases, surgery is sometimes used to treat PVD, but it is generally simply left untreated since it is a harmless condition that does not affect sight or quality of life and usually gets better on its own.

You will need surgery urgently to correct a retinal detachment.


When should I see an optician or my GP?

Occasional small flashes and few floaters are not a cause for concern. However, make an appointment with your optician or GP if you're worried about regular disturbances in your vision. You should also consider having regular appointments with your optician to make sure that your flashes and floaters aren't related to a more serious issue.

If you suspect that you have retinal detachment, seek medical advice right away or call NHS 111.


Next steps

• Most flashes and floaters are not serious which means you shouldn't worry too much

• Make an appointment with your optician or GP if you're concerned 

• If your flashes and floaters suddenly appear out of nowhere, increase in number of intensity, or you get blurred vision or painful eyes, seek medical help immediately