Keep a Close Eye on Changes in Your Eyesight

Floaters, spots or flashes of light could be evidence of a serious eye problem

Credit: Toni Blay

One out of every seven patients who reported seeing floaters and/or light flashes had a tear in their retina

Sudden vision changes such as seeing floaters and flashes 
could indicate a serious eye problem.

Have you ever reached out to grab that little piece of thread in the air or wave away a blob of dust, only to find it elusive? Don’t worry — you’re not hallucinating. What you’re seeing are known as floaters.

Floaters are small spots or floating bits that episodically float across your line of vision, changing direction along with your gaze. They can be more noticeable in brightly lit conditions, like on a sunny day outdoors or in a well-lit room. They’re a natural part of aging and while they can be annoying, most folks accept and eventually ignore their presence.

Notice the Floaters

However, there are a couple of circumstances when they should not be ignored. A sudden change, with newly acquired floaters or flashes of light that appear across your visual field, may indicate a more serious eye problem that, if left untreated, could result in blindness.

According to a recent review done by Queen’s University researchers in Kingston, Ontario, and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, one out of every seven patients who report seeing floaters and/or light flashes had a tear in their retina, which ultimately could lead to a retinal detachment and blindness.

Retinal Tears

The researchers reviewed more than 200 studies and analyzed 17 articles on retinal tearing. The retina is the thin piece of light-sensitive tissue that sticks to the back wall of our eyeball. The potential for tearing increases as we age, but it can also occur in those who are very myopic (nearsighted), have a family history of retinal detachments, or as a result of eye injury.

When a retinal tear occurs, a buildup of fluid can accumulate beneath. In 50 per cent of cases, this can lead to the retina separating from the inside wall of the eye, similar to wallpaper peeling away from a wall.

A detached retina requires an urgent assessment by an eye doctor because time is of the essence if you need a procedure to repair the damage. Detached retinas will not improve without treatment. A detached retina lacks oxygen, causing cells to die, which can lead to blindness.

Other warning signs of retinal detachment include seeing a shadow or curtain being pulled over a portion of your vision in one eye, or a sudden decrease in vision. While these symptoms may seem more alarming, to prompt you to seek help, remember not to ignore any sudden increase in the number and size of floaters or if you see a shower of spots. If you experience this, immediately see an eye doctor, who will use a special microscope to thoroughly examine the back of your eye.

Originally published in Wellness Matters, Canada Wide Media’s quarterly newsletter on health and wellness.