Flashes and floaters are most commonly experienced when the vitreous gel separates from the retina, a condition called a Posterior Vitreous Detachment or PVD. This condition, a normal part of the aging process, usually occurs between the ages of 60 and 80. It can also be seen at a younger age in nearsighted patients or those with a history of inflammation, surgery, or trauma to the eye. Most people who experience a PVD are suddenly aware of new floaters caused by the now-contracted and separated vitreous floating visibly in front of the retina. These floaters are often quite large, unlike those that the patient may have previously experienced. People often describe them as looking like cobwebs, small flies, or a smudge in the vision which moves about. In addition to new floaters, some patients with PVD observe flashing lights that occur due to the vitreous pulling on the retina, typically described as sparks or split-second, arc-like flashes located in the peripheral vision. The flashing typically decreases over the first several weeks following the vitreous separation. Some patients have flashing lights without new floaters. Although most people over time adapt to floaters, surgically removing them in severe cases may be considered.
If you are experiencing new flashes or floaters, consult with an eye doctor immediately. In some cases, flashes and floaters may be caused by a retinal tear, a much more serious condition that often requires laser treatment.
In some cases, when a PVD occurs, the vitreous separating from the retina can pull too hard on a single spot creating a tear in the retina. Retinal tears can occur in anyone, but are more common in the elderly, in nearsighted individuals, or those with abnormally strong attachments between the retina and vitreous. Some retinal tears are due to trauma.
While the symptoms of a retinal tear are the same as those of a PVD with flashing lights or new floaters, a retinal tear is a much more serious condition often requiring Laser treatment to seal the retina to the eye wall. This procedure keeps the tear from progressing into a retinal detachment. It is therefore critical to schedule an eye exam as soon as possible to check for the presence of a retinal tear.