Medical Examiner

How to Live With Floaters, Those Tiny Ghosts in Your Eyes

There is no cure, just misery and distraction.

A woman squinting.
Those pesky floaters.
SergioG17/iStock/Getty Images Plus

When floaters first showed up in my eyes about five years ago, I didn’t think it was a medical condition; I thought it was a superpower. Honestly—my adolescent brain read the little transparent particles that were suddenly floating around my field of vision as little clues to the molecular makeup of the universe that I was somehow, luckily, witnessing. I felt like Neo at the end of the first Matrix when he sees all those cascading green numbers.

That impression lasted a few hours. The next week at the optometrist’s office I received a battery of tests. They dilated my eyes, shot a puff of air into them that caused my body to shake like a coward, and mapped the eye with an optomap scan. At the end of the tests, my optometrist diagnosed me with floaters and said they’re only really a problem for those who obsess. “Great,” I responded.

Floaters are small deposits in the vitreous—the gooey gel-like substance between the lens and the retina—that leave shadowy dots and lines scaling across your field of vision. They often occur in the nearsighted and elderly, and occasionally are a sign of something more serious. (For this reason, you should be sure to talk to both your ophthalmologist and your doctor about what you’re experiencing.)* But for most people, they’re just incredibly annoying.

How can I describe floaters for those who have virginal vision? It feels like your eyes are being haunted by innocuous ghosts. Every movie looks like a bad print, and sentences in books are stopped abruptly by floating periods, making every novel read like Hemingway. I’ve swatted at flies that weren’t there. I’d make an awful, trigger-happy fighter pilot. The floaters look like tiny black holes coming to envelop me, like unreported UFOs hovering in the distance, like I took a horribly mundane hallucinogenic drug. What I’m trying to say is that they’re bad.

Anyone looking for a cure is pretty much shit out of luck. There’s no pill that can help, and proper diet and exercise will not be of any assistance; a relief, frankly. The only options are somewhat invasive in nature. One approach is a surgery called a vitrectomy—not to be a confused with a vasectomy, though neither are a walk in the park—which involves scooping out the vitreous and replacing it with a saline solution. Scooping is never a good word to hear in any procedure.

Then there’s laser surgery, the still-experimental process that involves a doctor playing Missile Command with your eyes and shooting the floaters in an attempt to break them up. My optometrist actually warned me about the procedure by simply saying, “What if they miss?” Yeesh.

Both risky methods are only recommended for serious cases of floaters and are not guaranteed to completely eliminate their presence anyway. At the optometrist’s office, I was dissuaded from pursuing either of them. She told me there was ultimately nothing she could do but to come back if there were any new developments, which is exactly how cops talk.

The millions of floater sufferers out there have realized that it’s important to develop coping methods. Initially, people often try rapidly looking in opposite directions in order to send the floaters flying off-screen, giving the temporary illusion of absence. The problem with this strategy is that they always creep back up, as if your eyes are playing fetch.

With floaters, light and white walls are not your friends. To eliminate exposure to such things, you could do something small like lowering the brightness of your computer screen or painting your home with darker tones. Or you could do something excessive, like spend your winters in northern Alaska, where they get 67 straight days of darkness (how you spend the other 298 is up to you). I’m trying to find an apartment in a planetarium.

Whenever I head back to the optometrist for an annual appointment, she checks in on the floaters with the same casualness as one would look out the window to see if it’s still raining. I half-jokingly ask if some magic cure has been invented, and she chuckles and says nope. Leaving the office, I simply try to take comfort in the fact that the floaters haven’t invaded my dreams; not yet, anyway.

If you suffer from this horrible affliction, my advice to you would be to not give the floaters too much power like I have, and remember that in the movie of your life, they are not co-stars, supporting characters, or even a cameo. They are at best the boom mic, occasionally dipping on-screen. Just roll your eyes, and try to move on.

Update, Nov. 29, 2018: This post has been updated to emphasize that people should be sure to talk to their doctors about any eye trouble they are experiencing.