What do eye floaters look like?

Written by: Mr Sui-Chien Wong
Published: | Updated: 06/06/2019
Edited by: Laura Burgess

If your vision is frequently spoiled by lines, spots and shadows, it may be time for a trip to the eye specialist to check for floaters. Expert ophthalmologist and vitreoretinal surgeon Mr Chien Wong explains what floaters look like and whether they can cause blindness…

What are eye floaters?

Floaters are tiny pieces of debris that float in the vitreous gel and retina of the eye. They have been described as looking like black dots, cobwebs or floating black lines, disrupting vision. Eye floaters are common symptoms of underlying conditions that affect the vitreous gel and retina of the eye. The retina is a bit like the film at the back of an old-fashioned camera as it captures images from the outside world and sends them back to the brain. The vitreous gel sits just in front of the retina and together they occupy more than 60% of the volume of the eyeball.

What causes eye floaters?

Floaters are most commonly caused by the ageing of the vitreous gel. As the gel ages, it becomes more liquefied with clumps of condensed gel that appear as floaters in the vision. Adults can spot eye floaters in their vision by looking up at a clear blue sky, although this is not too worrying. Occasionally, floaters may be more noticeable and can interfere with everyday activities such as reading and watching a computer or TV screen. In people with diabetes, floaters may be due to bleeding from the retina into the vitreous gel because of advanced retinal disease.

Can floaters cause blindness?

Floaters tend to be harmless but if there is a sudden change or an increase in number, it is important to have a check-up with a specialist. This is to determine whether there is a retinal tear or retinal detachment, which can rapidly lead to blindness if left untreated. At birth, the vitreous gel is attached to the retina. As we age, the vitreous gel causes it to separate from the retina in the majority of people by the age of 70. When that happens, on some occasions, a retinal tear or retinal detachment could develop suddenly.

What other problems can ageing vitreous gel cause?

Ageing vitreous gel can also lead to problems with the central retina itself (the macula), such as the macular hole, epiretinal membrane and vitreomacular traction. Symptoms include distortion and blurring of vision, which is why visiting an ophthalmologist for an eye check-up is important.

How are eye floaters treated?

Floaters can be cured with vitrectomy surgery. Treatment for central vision problems includes vitrectomy and highly delicate retinal surgery.

Mr Sui-Chien Wong

By Mr Sui-Chien Wong

Mr Chien Wong is a leading vitreoretinal surgeon based in London, with unique expertise in both adult and paediatric retinal surgery. In 2017, Mr Wong featured in the Global Annual Power List 50 Top Rising Stars in ophthalmology.

He is a world leading expert in endoscopic vitrectomy surgery in adults and children with complex vitreoretinal diseases. In 2014, Mr Wong pioneered the use of this technique in the UK for treating retinal detachment in retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) using endoscopic vitrectomy. As a result, he is now Head of the UK national ROP Retinal Detachment Surgical Centre at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH).

With this knowledge, Mr Wong has spent the last three years working with an American-based NGO, the Armenian Eye Care Project, developing the national referral paediatric vitreoretinal centre for Armenian children, and neighbouring former Soviet states. Here Mr Wong trains surgeons based in Armenia, as well as performing life-changing vitreoretinal surgeries on children with severe eye conditions. 

Mr Wong is well published in leading international scientific journals, with more than 40 publications, several book chapters and is currently the editor for two upcoming books. He has extensive research interests in vitreoretinal surgery in adults and children, including being the UK Chief Investigator (head) of the International RAINBOW trial, vitreoretinal surgical devices development, genomic medicine and surgical approaches for gene therapy.

For more information, please visit Mr Wong's personal website.

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