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Flashing and Floaters

What are flashing lights and floaters?

The outer wall of the eye, the sclera, is lined internally by several layers; the innermost layer is the retina. Liken this to a room with its outer wall, and the wallpaper lining it internally. Filling this room is the vitreous jelly, much like jello.

With age, trauma, inflammation and other events, the vitreous jelly liquefies, and becomes less homogeneous. Relatively condensed particles of vitreous may be seen 'floating' within the more liquified jelly. These are seen as floaters. Floaters alone are relatively inconsequential and quite common.

As the jelly shrinks, the thickened portion that is in contact with the retina may pull away. This traction on the retina results in the person seeing flashes of light.

If a person sees the sudden onset of floaters, particularly a 'flood', 'waterfall' or 'plume' of floaters, this may represent bleeding into the vitreous cavity and urgent examination by an ophthalmologist is advisable.

If the retina is pulled, it can tear, so flashing lights are a fairly important symptom and require immediate attention.

Who is at risk for a torn retina?

Anybody.  Some people are at a higher risk for tearing of the retina.  These include:

  • Nearsighted (myopic) people

  • People who had prior ocular inflammation

  • People who underwent eye surgery

  • People with a family history of retinal tears or detachments

  • Some medical conditions, like Marfan's disease

If the retina is torn, treatment with a laser is indicated. For more information, please click the bottom below:

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