Seeing occasional flashing lights in your eyes usually isn’t a serious problem. But repeated flashes in the form of bright spots, streaks of lightning, or shooting stars in the corner of your eye, or a sudden increase in floaters, can indicate a serious medical condition. If you experience these symptoms, you should seek medical attention right away.
What Are the Flashing Lights I Can See in My Eyes?
Flashing lights affect the retina. The retina’s job is to process the light that enters your eye and send that information to your brain. The vitreous is attached to the retina by small fibers, and the friction that occurs on these fibers can lead to flashing lights in the eye.
Eye flashes are caused by changes in the vitreous gel, the substance that protects the retina and gives the eye its shape. The vitreous naturally shrinks as you age. As the gel changes consistency, it separates from the retina in a normal process called posterior vitreous detachment.
This separated vitreous material, which we call floaters, drifts in front of the retina and blocks your field of vision. That’s why you may see dust-like shapes or spots floating through your vision.
People in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are mostly likely to experience floaters and flashing lights in their vision, but certain conditions can also cause them. Diabetes, nearsightedness, previous eye surgery, and past eye swelling issues can increase your risk of developing floaters and flashes.
What Are Eye Floaters?
Both eye floaters and flashes are a result of shrinking vitreous, and both affect the retina. Flashes are caused when vitreous gel separates from the retina and causes friction. When the vitreous gel is fully separated, it can float across your vision, creating floaters.
Floaters may look like gray or black specks, dust, strings, or cobwebs.
Most Common Causes of Flashing Lights in the Eye
The friction on the retina caused by separating vitreous can be caused by a few different factors, and not all of them are vision-related. Migraines, diabetes, and the use of certain medications can create flashing lights in the eyes.
There are four main vision-related conditions that can cause eye flashes.
Posterior Vitreous Detachment
This is one of the more common vision-related causes of flashing lights and floaters in the eye. As you age, the vitreous shrinks and can detach. If this detachment occurs suddenly, the resulting friction can cause floaters and flashing lights to appear in the corner of your eye. Posterior vitreous detachment occurs naturally in people over the age of 40. It can’t be prevented, but it can be treated.
Fifty-three percent of people over the age of 50 have posterior vitreous detachment, and 66 percent of people between the ages of 66 to 86 have it.
The tugging and friction caused by detaching vitreous can result in a retinal tear. Fluid can enter through this tear and cause retinal detachment, in which the retina detaches from the underlying tissue in the back of the eye. Left untreated, retinal detachment can lead to permanent vision loss.
A warning sign of a retinal tear is repeated flashes that can occur within seconds or hours of each other. Other signs include a sudden increase in floaters, a curtain in front of the eye, a loss of peripheral vision, or a narrowing of the visual field.
Excess pressure on the retina can result in flashing lights appearing in one or both of your eyes. This pressure can be caused by rubbing your eyes, coughing too hard, or getting bumped or hit on the head. Additional symptoms of retina pressure include dry eyes, headaches, blurred vision, and sore or burning eyes.
This is an eye disorder that causes inflammation and swelling on the optic nerve, which is responsible for transmitting images and light from the retina to the brain. The swelling and inflammation caused by optic neuritis can result in flashing lights in the eye and even lead to vision loss or blindness. Symptoms of optic neuritis include eye redness, blurred vision, double vision, and headaches.
When Should I See a Doctor?
Getting an eye exam is the only way to tell if eye flashes are from a clean separation of vitreous gel or a retinal tear.
Retinal tears and retinal detachment are medical emergencies. If you experience the following symptoms, you should seek medical attention right away:
- Sudden, repeated eye flashes
- A sudden increase in eye floaters
- Loss of peripheral vision
- Narrowing of the visual field
- A curtain in front of the eye
You should also visit an eye doctor if you experience the following symptoms:
- Blurred vision
- Darkening vision
- Vision loss
- An eye injury
- Frequent ocular migraines (episodes of vision loss in one eye, usually lasting less than one hour and associated with a headache)
- Vision changes
Get Expert Eye Care at MEI
If you’re experiencing any unusual vision changes like sudden flashes of light or floaters, you should schedule an appointment with an experienced eye doctor at Michigan Eye Institute. We can perform a comprehensive eye exam to determine the cause of your eye flashes or floaters and provide you with any necessary treatments to protect your vision.
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