Ask an expert: Should I be worried about the floaters in my eyes?

Ophthalmologist Dr. Patrick Ma dispels some commonly held myths and explains what we can do to keep our eyes healthy in a technology-driven world.

Between work, everyday communication and Netflix, most of us stare at computer and smart phone screens for hours each day. What impact does all this screen-time have on our eyesight? 

Q: I often see semi-transparent specs floating across my field of vision—does this mean I have an eyesight problem?
The short answer is no. The semi-transparent shapes in our in our field of vision, often called eye floaters, appear with the natural aging of the eye—when vitreous gel in our eyes degenerates. These floaters are more common for people with short-sightedness, also known as myopia, and become increasingly common as people get into their late-20s and 30s. However, if someone develops a lot of eye floaters very suddenly, this could be a sign of retinal detachment and should be addressed right away.

Q: I spend almost one-third of my day in front of a computer and I seem to have lots of floaters in both eyes that do not disappear. What can I do?
Almost all of us have eye floaters under certain lighting conditions. They are most obvious when looking at a bright or white surface. Unfortunately, eye floaters can be a real nuisance in work environments with very bright computer screens or backlighting. The best solution in these circumstances is to turn down the brightness on your computer monitor and eliminate sources of glare, such as from a window or bright lighting.

Q: Do our eyes need breaks?
Eye fatigue varies from individual to individual and can be related to whether or not someone is wearing proper glasses or has a comfortable working environment. Because the distance to a computer screen is almost double that of a book held in your hands, which we call an intermediate distance, proper computer or occupation glasses—including prescriptions for bifocals—should be worn when working at a computer if you need them. A dry feeling in the eyes, a dusty environment, improper prescriptions and/or a computer configuration that contributes to neck, head and back strain, can all result in individuals needing to take more frequent breaks from screens. However, our eyes are designed to be used—if your posture and physical capabilities are good, it should not be straining to look at a computer.

Q: What can we do to ensure our eyes stay healthy?
I would recommend taking eye and movement breaks from a fixed task. If you sit and do one thing for an extended period of time, you should take breaks for posture and eye relief—such as getting up and walking around—at least every hour for at least five minutes at a time. Eating a healthy diet with lots of green and coloured vegetables is also good for the eyes and vision, along with avoiding a lot of dehydrating caffeinated products, which can dry out the eyes. 

Dr. Patrick Ma is a Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute researcher and clinical professor at the Department of Ophthalmology at UBC. Initially trained as an optometrist, Dr. Ma completed a residency in ophthalmology in Ottawa and a sub-specialty retinal fellowship in New Orleans. Dr. Ma’s expertise and research is in the medical and surgical management of diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, pathologic myopia, retinal vein occlusions, uveitis, paediatric vitreo-retinal diseases and complex retinal detachments. 

When to get an eye exam

  • People who wear glasses: every two years
  • People over 40 years of age: every year
  • People under 40 who do not have eye problems or wear glasses: every five years


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