Floaters are opacities that move about within the jelly of your eye (the vitreous gel). You can see them moving about in your field of vision. They may range from fine, cobweb-like shadows in your vision to small specks or large “blobs” moving about across your sight.
The vitreous gel has a protein framework, and as you age these proteins tend to clump together, causing “thickened” areas of the gel which lose their transparency. Initially these thickened areas are pressed against the eye wall, and you do not notice them.
As the gel ages these thick areas separate from the eye wall and float about in the eye, whereupon you can see them. Occasionally, floaters are due to inflammation or haemorrhage in the eye.
Most adults notice some mild floaters in certain lighting conditions. At some point in everyone’s life the outer, thicker part of the vitreous gel separates from the retina, which lines the eye wall, and when this occurs there is usually a dramatic increase in the number of floaters.
When this occurs it is wise to have your eye examined by an ophthalmic surgeon, to ensure that the gel has separated cleanly, without tearing the retina (see retinal detachment).
You may also notice some flashing lights in your field of vision, haziness of vision, or some loss of your side vision. If any of these occur, then you should consult your doctor urgently, and you will probably have to be examined by an eye surgeon (ophthalmologist).
If you have the other symptoms described above then you should certainly seek medical advice. If your floaters have come on suddenly within the last few days or weeks, then it is wise to consult your doctor.
If you have no symptoms other than your floaters, and these have been present for many months or years, then there is no need to seek medical advice unless the floaters are a nuisance, and interfering with your quality of life.
If your floaters are a nuisance, and interfering with your quality of life, then you can have them removed with an operation called a vitrectomy. This is a fairly complex operation, usually only carried out by eye surgeons who have had special training in retinal surgery (they are usually called vitreoretinal surgeons).
Because all operations carry risks, as well as benefits, surgery is usually only carried out for particularly troublesome floaters.