Here’s a problem with medical jargon: it’s often really hard for patients to understand. Some of the time, this is inevitable; the human body is incredibly complex, and understanding all of the terms means understanding all of the processes. This, of course, takes years of study to accomplish, so most of the time it’s unavoidable that some complex concept will be contained within a jargon-y word. That said, it would be nice if some of the words were a little more user-friendly, and that’s why I love the word floaters. You know what floaters are: the little floaty, stringy, spotty things in your eye. They’re not dangerous in and of themselves, but they can be a sign of danger. To understand them, you need to understand gels.

Gels are, well, like Jell-O. The similarity in name is no coincidence, of course, but the dessert wasn’t named after gels; rather, Jell-O is the trademark name of a gelatin dessert, and gelatin is the gel that gels are named after. Gels are solids, even though by weight, they’re almost entirely liquid. When gels aren’t in motion, they don’t try to occupy all the space available in their container. Now, imagine there were little tiny flecks inside a particularly liquid gelatin dessert. Pick up that dessert, and start shaking it around, and you’ll notice the little flecks moving around inside the dessert; they’ll float in the same direction you moved the dessert in.

That little experiment is basically what’s happening when you see floaters in your eye. Your eye contains a gel called the vitreous humour; it makes up fourth-fifths of the total volume of your eye. Being a gel has many useful properties: the vitreous humour is mostly responsible for the eye’s spherical shape, owing to its solidity, but is 99% water, so light can pass through it without being blocked. The vitreous humour is connected to the lens on one end, and the retina on the other. As we age, strands of collagen begin to solidify within the gel; from there, the strands act like the flecks in our Jell-O, and move in the same direction as your eye movements. They’re suspended there more or less forever; the eye does a good job of self-preserving. Most will settle towards the bottom of the eye. When you see floaters, you’re not actually seeing the object, but it’s shadow; it’s like several little tiny eclipses just for you!

This all means that, for the most part, floaters are nothing to worry about. They can, however, act as a warning sign for something serious. When you see a sudden shower of floaters, often accompanied by a flash of light, it may be a sign of vitreous detachment, which can lead to vision loss. Should you ever experience such a shower, go see an optometrist right away. The same optometrist who you get your prescription for Winnipeg eyeglasses from can diagnose serious medical conditions that might threaten your vision.