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Some people see small dots or specks, lines, or even cobwebs that seem to be floating in front of their eyes. Sometimes, they also see lightning streaks, lights going on and off, or flashes of light, even if there are none present. These floaters and eye flashes are actually seen inside the eye, because the nerve cells that sense them are located at the back of the eye.

To understand this more clearly, it is important to know that inside the eyeball, there is a patch of cells at the back, which is called retina. It is sensitive to light and it captures the images in front of the eye and sends them to your brain through your optic nerve. Light enters the eye through the lens and into the inner chamber of the eyeball, which contains a gel that resembles egg white, before it hits the retina. The gel, called vitreous humor, supports the eyeball and connects to your retina.

As people age, the vitreous humor begins to thicken and shrink, causing clumps and strands to form inside your eye. They float inside the eye, and when light strikes them, they cast shadows in the retina, and then you see them as black objects or floaters. The vitreous shrinks further and detaches from the retina, causing more floaters to appear. They are most visible when you stare at a blank wall or any plain background. Lightning streaks or flashes of light may also be seen as the gel continues to separate from the retina.

You may see these floaters and flashes in one or both eyes and these sensations may increase as you age. In fact, about a quarter of 60 year-old people have vitreous shrinkage and floaters, and approximately two-thirds have them by the time they reach 80. However, your brain often learns to ignore them, so most people may not be bothered by them. This is a natural process that may not cause problems for most people. Others, however, may complain that floaters affect their normal vision and disturb them while they read. Floaters are also more common in nearsighted individuals, diabetics, people who have undergone cataract surgery or experienced an eye injury.

In some people (approximately one in six), the vitreous pulls on the retina, which causes the retina to be torn. This condition, called retinal detachment, can develop into a serious problem, which can result in loss of vision. Although it is painless, a retinal tear may be suspected if you experience a gradual shading in your vision on one side, a sensation that is similar to having a curtain drawn on one side. You may also experience a rapid loss of central vision if the area called macula in the retina gets detached.

When to See a Doctor

Most people are able to live with floaters and occasional flashes in their eyes. In most cases, no treatment is necessary. However, if they begin to disrupt your normal vision or your daily activities, it is best to see your doctor, preferably an ophthalmologist, who has the proper instruments to examine the inner eye. Immediate treatment is necessary for retinal detachment.

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