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Health Answers

Should I worry about frequent floaters in my vision?

Q. Should I worry about frequent floaters in my
vision?

A. Floaters — lines, squiggles, or specks that creep across your field of vision — are often benign but occasionally herald a medical problem. What you’re seeing, says Jeffrey Heier, director of the vitreoretinal service at Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston, is a shadow cast on the retina by a clump of cells or debris in the gel-like material in the back of the eye called the vitreous. The vitreous can liquefy and shrink over time, leaving these clumps. “The older you get the more likely it is to happen,” he says.

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A prominent floater may be a sign of a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD), in which the liquefied vitreous separates from the retina. In a minority of cases, a PVD can cause the retina itself to tear or even detach from the back of the eye, which can cause permanent vision loss. Heier says it is worth seeing a doctor if you experience a new onset of floaters, or prominent floaters or flashes. Retinal tears are often treated with laser light or freezing therapy, while detachments often require surgery.

Benign floaters usually go away on their own, but for some people they stick around and can interfere with their work or quality of life. Laser surgery is increasingly available for floaters, but Heier says the evidence for its effectiveness and safety is inconclusive. Surgeons can also remove the floater along with much of the vitreous, but Heier says surgery is rarely worth the risk to a healthy eye.

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