Flashes and Floaters

What are Flashes?

Flashes of light are pinpricks or spots of light that you see in your field of vision. Light flashes can also look like jagged lines or appear wavy, like heat waves. People often say seeing flashes of light is like seeing “shooting stars” or “lightning streaks.”

Flashes of light in your vision come from inside your eye or brain. They are not caused by lights or anything else outside of your body.  Most flashes happen when the vitreous gel inside the eye shrinks or changes, pulling on the retina (the light sensitive lining of the eye).

Many people will see occasional flashes of light, especially as they age. These occasional flashes are usually harmless, but you should discuss them with Dr. Banik during your eye exam.

Flashes of light may be caused by either eye issues or neurologic issues. Eye problems which can cause flashes include a detached or torn retina, lack of oxygen, or inflammation within the eye. A common neurologic, or brain issue, which causes flashes is migraine. Rarely, more serious brain conditions such as seizures or tumors can cause flashes.

If you suddenly start seeing repeated flashes of light, this could be a serious problem, especially if you also have cloudy floaters or vision changes. Call Dr. Banik right away if this happens. 

Flashes and migraines

Sometimes people have light flashes that look like jagged lines or heat waves. These can appear in one or both eyes and may last up to 20 minutes. This type of flash may be caused by a migraine. A migraine is a spasm of blood vessels in the brain.

When you get a headache after these flashes, it is called a “migraine headache.” But sometimes you only see the light flash without having a headache. This is called an “acephalgic migraine” or “migraine without headache.”


    What are floaters?

    Floaters look like small specks, dots, circles, lines or cobwebs in your field of vision. While they seem to be in front of your eye, they are floating inside. Floaters are tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous that fills your eye. What you see are the shadows these clumps cast on your retina.

    You usually notice floaters when looking at something plain, like a blank wall or a blue sky.

    As we age, our vitreous starts to thicken or shrink. Sometimes clumps or strands form in the vitreous. If the vitreous pulls away from the back of the eye, it is called posterior vitreous detachment. Floaters usually happen with posterior vitreous detachment. They are not serious, and they tend to fade or go away over time. Severe floaters can be removed by surgery, but this is seldom necessary.

    You are more likely to get floaters if you:

    • are nearsighted (you need glasses to see far away)
    • have had surgery for cataracts
    • have had inflammation (swelling) inside the eye

    When floaters and flashes are serious

    Most floaters and flashes are not a problem. However, there are times when they can be signs of a serious condition. Here is when you should call Dr. Banik right away:

    • you notice a lot of new floaters
    • you have a lot of flashes
    • a shadow appears in your peripheral (side) vision
    • a gray curtain covers part of your vision

    These floaters and flashes could be symptoms of a torn or detached retina. This is when the retina pulls away from the back of your eye. This is a serious condition that must be treated quickly to prevent blindness.