Harvard Women's Health Watch

Floaters, flashes, and retinal tears

Seeing things? Usually it's just the harmless "stuff" of age-related eye changes, but occasionally it's a sign of something more serious.

Like the rest of the body, the eyes change as we grow older. Some changes set the stage for serious eye problems, such as macular degeneration and glaucoma. But others are more annoyances than medical problems. For example, almost everyone over the age of 50 develops some degree of presbyopia — difficulty focusing on near objects. A pair of reading glasses is the usual remedy.

Many older people also notice visual phenomena called floaters — shapes like dots, clouds, threads, or cobwebs — drifting across their line of vision. Occasional flashes of light are also common. Floaters and flashes are usually harmless, but occasionally, they indicate a retinal tear — or worse, a retinal detachment, which can lead to vision loss. Treatment of a retinal tear can help prevent retinal detachment, so it's important to know when to see an ophthalmologist and what to expect.

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