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What Should You do When You Suddenly See “Flashes” or ” Floaters”

At Capital Eye, your local optometrist in Canberra, we routinely see patients that experience “flashes” or “floaters” in their vision that they haven’t seen in the past. In this week’s newsletter, we look at some reasons and causes of these flashing lights or dark spots floating across your vision, and what you should do when this occurs.

Understanding “Flashes” and “Floaters”

Occasionally you noticed something flickering on the side of your vision. You can’t really pinpoint what it is, but the flickering gets brighter and more frequent. It is becoming more and more annoying as it starts to affect your concentration and sometimes, vision.

Most of our patients describe these flashes like a bright camera flash when the photographer is taking a photo of you. Others also describe this phenomenon as a thunderbolt on a dark stormy day that only lasts a few seconds, but it frequently occurs throughout the day.

These brief flickering bright lights are known as “flashes.” Our eyeballs are filled with a viscous jelly-like substance called the vitreous. The vitreous gives the eyeball its shape (like air in your tyres). The vitreous of the eye is attached to the retina. Occasionally, during sudden movements such as quick brisk head turns, the vitreous “tugs” or pulls on the retina. This action results in the patient to experience a “flash” of light in the corner of their vision.

As time goes by, the vitreous would eventually detach from the retinal interface. When this happens, the collagen fibres, which makes up the vitreous, starts to condense or clump together. These clumps then float within the rest of the vitreous, casting a shadow on the retina. As it floats around, the shadow follows, and the patient sees this as a dark spot wandering within their vision.

What causes you to experience “Flashes” or “Floaters.”

Our eyes often aren’t perfect. There might be a small degree of cellular debris within the vitreous, causing these dark spots. Diseases which causes a structural change of the eyeball such as pathological myopia, systemic ailments such as Stickler’s syndrome, diabetes or merely age-related changes can cause floaters to appear prematurely.

Sudden head movements can cause flashing lights, often associated with extreme sports such as bungy jumping and skydiving. Patients involved in motor vehicle accidents such as whiplash injuries can cause the vitreous to detach prematurely, causing flashes and floaters.

In either scenario, if you experience these flashes or floaters, it is essential to have your symptoms evaluated by your optometrist promptly.

What to Do When You See these “Flashes” or ” Floaters”

When you first experience these flashes and floaters, a prompt appointment to see your eye care professional is paramount. Before you do so, you should pay attention to below;

Document Your Symptoms. Write down when you first noticed these dark spots or flashes. Take notice how long they last and how frequent it is occurring. Are you experiencing these flashes or floaters in both eyes? Do you notice these flashes more so at night? How often do these flashes occur? How many times do you see it during the day?

Regarding the dark spots, do they move when you move your head? Could you count how many floaters you could see? Are the sizes of these floaters changing? Are you seeing more and more of these floaters as time goes by?

It is essential to take accurate notes on how these floaters come about. This will help your optometrist to diagnose the issue by doing specified tests accurately.

Organise an appointment your local optometrist. It is imperative to have your eyes thoroughly examined by your optometrist prompt should you experience sudden flashes or floaters. One of the causes of significant flashes or floaters is a retinal detachment, which is an ocular emergency and needed to be treated promptly to avoid further vision loss. You could go to your GP or present yourself to an emergency department. In either case, should you be unfortunate enough to have a retinal detachment, the wait-time at your GP’s office or the Emergency Department at your local hospital would unnecessarily delay your treatment. Your local optometrist would be able to organise an emergency referral to the ophthalmology department in the hospital should urgent treatment be required. Your GP may not have the equipment to adequately examine your eyes to determine the severity of the condition. Having your eyes examined with your local optometrist is your best bet to provide you with the best treatment available to you.

What to Expect at Your Appointment

Your local optometrist would put some dilating eye drops to enlarge your pupils. With the dilation, your optometrist can evaluate the health at the back of the eye entirely. Your optometrist would be able to identify the floaters that you’ve mentioned and confirmed if the vitreous is tugging on the retina, giving you the sensation of “flashes”. During the entire dilated eye examination, your optometrist will examine carefully to determine any clinical signs of retinal detachment, retinal holes which would require urgent attention. There would be some bright lights and relevant scans to confirm your retinal health.

After Your Appointment

After your appointment, your vision may be quite blurry and sensitive to light due to the dilation. This may take some time for the dilating drops to wear off, usually about 2 – 3 hours. Because of this, we recommend you have someone to drive you to your appointment.

It is quite normal to detect isolated floaters routinely. If that’s the case, there’s often no concerns unless the number of floaters you are noticing increases in a short amount of time.

In the unlikely case that the floaters and flashes are caused by a retinal detachment, a same-day emergency referral will be organised on the spot to your nearest ophthalmology clinic (if not, the ophthalmology department in the hospital). For a retinal detachment, the goal here is to save or prevent any further vision loss. You may not notice any impact on your vision if the retinal detachment is quite shallow and insignificant. But left untreated or unmanaged, the risk of vision loss is quite high.

The Bottom Line

Noticing an occasional flash or a floater is quite common and can be related to just regular age-related changes in the eye. However, if this is the first time you ever experience it, then it is strongly suggested that you see your local optometrist promptly. Your GP may not have the equipment to assess your eyes adequately. Going to the emergency department at the hospital may leave you waiting for hours. New symptoms of flashes and floaters need to be adequately assessed for its cause which could be from a new retinal detachment. Retinal detachment requires urgent attention and your local optometrist would be able to organise a same-day referral to have it treated promptly, to prevent further vision loss.

If you are experiencing new flashes and floaters, there is no benefit in delaying your appointment to see your local optometrist. You can organise an appointment quickly with us in Canberra online. We look forward to welcoming you soon.