Written by MacuHealth
Reviewed by Jim Stringham, Ph.D.
It’s aggravating when oddly shaped particles move across your line of sight. These annoying strands are known as eye floaters. These pesky items can affect your ability to work, drive or go to the beach on a hot summer day. Reading a book, watching a movie or performing day-to-day tasks at home may develop into a struggle. It can even become difficult to concentrate when spending time with friends and family.
If floaters interfere with your everyday life, you’re not alone. The National Eye Institute predicts that nearly everyone will develop eye floaters at some point in their lives. One of the causes of eye floaters is a lack of nutrients in the part of the eye known as the vitreous body. For some, floaters are manageable and eventually go away. But for others, they are a source of uneasiness and stress.
What can we do about these distracting spots and specks? We’ll take a closer look at what causes eye floaters and ways to manage them.
Before understanding what causes eye floaters, we need to learn about where they’re found: the vitreous. This clear gel-like substance consists of water, collagen and hyaluronic acid. It makes up nearly 80% of the eye and resides behind the lens and the front of the retina.
The vitreous helps maintain your eyeball’s shape, absorbs vibration and keeps the retina attached. It needs specific antioxidants to protect it against oxidative stress and disease.
If you’ve wondered what causes eye floaters, research shows the vitreous loses nutrients over time. This causes the collagen fibers inside it to clump together. These clumps, called floaters, cast shadows on the retina and become more noticeable when looking at the sun or bright surfaces.2
If you’ve suffered from eye floaters for a long time, you’re likely familiar with how they float around (hence the name). Sometimes they’re black and gray colored dots. In some instances, floaters appear as squiggly lines, threadlike strands, cobwebs or rings. They can even emerge as a dark or light area of vision. Other times, they make some objects look blurry compared to the rest of your visual field. As your brain adapts to seeing them, you may notice them less, but they don’t truly go away.
There is more than one answer to the question: What causes eye floaters? The symptoms generally become more common with age. But if you notice a sudden increase in the number of floaters, it’s time to see an eye care professional for an examination as it could be a sign of a more serious issue. One such condition is a detached retina. This happens when the vitreous separates from or peels off the retina, the part of your eye that processes light. It doesn’t cause your eye any pain, but it could lead to permanent vision loss if left untreated.
Other possible causes for an increase in floaters include eye inflammation, infection, retinal trauma, diabetic retinopathy, hemorrhaging or an eye tumor.
What can you do to maintain your eye health and manage floaters? Try eating more fruits and vegetables, wear protective eyeglasses (especially when it’s bright outdoors) and stay adequately hydrated. If you smoke, try to quit.
Your eye care professional may recommend risky, invasive therapies. These include using a laser to break up floaters. There is also a surgical procedure to remove the vitreous and replace it with a saline solution or bubble filled with gas or oil. This is known as a vitrectomy, and it comes with a risk of serious complications, including retinal detachment and cataracts.
Surgery may not be necessary, however. Given that the vitreous requires a continuous supply of antioxidant and enzymatic nutrients, researchers from the Nutrition Research Centre Ireland hypothesized that giving participants these nutrients in a supplement, floater symptoms may subside. This trial, called the Floater Intervention Study (FLIES)1, showed a significant reduction in floaters and an improvement in visual function compared to placebo.
Ankamah et al. 2021. doi.org/10.1167/tvst.10.12.19
Webb, Blake F et al. “Prevalence of vitreous floaters in a community sample of smartphone users.” International journal of ophthalmology vol. 6,3 402-5. 18 Jun. 2013, doi:10.3980/j.issn.2222-3959.2013.03.27