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Flashing in the Eyes

Flashes in the eyes can look like camera flashes or lightening and are usually caused by posterior vitreous detachment (which happens naturally with age), retinal tears or detachments, type 2 diabetes, or macular degeneration. People with migraines can also get an aura with flashing lights in their vision. If your flashing lights are not related to migraines, talk to a doctor.
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Medically reviewed by
Last updated October 10, 2021

Flashing lights in vision quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your flashing lights in vision.

5 most common causes

Macular Degeneration
Illustration of a doctor beside a bedridden patient.
Type 2 Diabetes
Migraine
Illustration of a doctor beside a bedridden patient.
Posterior vitreous detachment
Illustration of a doctor beside a bedridden patient.
Retinal tear or detachment

Flashing lights in vision quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your flashing lights in vision.

Take flashing lights in vision quiz

What are eye flashes?

Most people experience a flashing light or eye floater in their vision at some point in their life. Flashing lights can be bright, colorful changes that look like a kaleidoscope or they may look like bright spots that are similar to when your photo is taken with a flash.

Floaters are typically cloud-like spots or shadows in the vision that can be light or dark colored.

Both visual changes are caused by a problem somewhere in the eye or vision pathway in the brain. These can occur with aging, but a number of diseases can also cause them. Because some serious causes may permanently affect vision, it’s important to see an eye doctor (ophthalmologist).

The main causes of eye flashes and floaters include: posterior vitreous detachment, migraine headaches, retinal tears or detachments, type 2 diabetes, or macular degeneration.

What can you do about floaters and flashers in the eye?

“Keep a written record of symptoms: when they began, how they change, how frequently they are occurring, or any other symptoms they may be associated with.”—Dr. Karen Hoerst

Causes

1. Posterior vitreous detachment

Symptoms

  • Floating dark spots (can look like strings or cobwebs)
  • Flashes of light (can look like lightning or camera flashes)
  • Floaters are more noticeable when looking at a plain light-colored background in bright light.
  • Symptoms are mild and come and go.

Posterior vitreous detachment (PVD) is the most common cause of floaters and flashing lights. It starts happening between the ages of 50 and 70. It is caused by the gel-like substance in the eyes (known as vitreous) partially liquifying and shrinking with age.

When this occurs, it can pull on and separate from the retina at the back of the eye. The parts of the gel that move around the eye when this occurs can cause floaters. When it tugs at the retina, it can cause flashes of bright light. This can also increase risk of retinal detachment.

Treating posterior vitreous detachment

Symptoms of floaters can get better with time as the gel-like pieces settle to the bottom of the eye. However, if you have ongoing problems with vision and it is affecting your quality of life, you may want to consider surgery. There are different types of surgeries, but the goal is to stabilize the retina if you have a retinal tear or detachment.

2.  Migraine

Symptoms

  • Visual symptoms: bright or colorful spots, sparkles or shimmering lights, zigzagging lines, or stars
  • Sound and light sensitivity
  • Severe headache
  • Nausea

Migraine causes severe headaches that usually last from 4 to 72 hours, and people often have other symptoms like nausea and light or sound sensitivity. You may notice visual symptoms just before or during a migraine headache and are known as visual auras. Migraine with aura occurs in 25% to 30% of people with migraines. Some people have visual auras but no headache, which is known as ocular migraine.

Treating migraine

If your migraine symptoms are not frequent, you may be able to treat them with over-the-counter (OTC) pain-relievers. But taking pain relievers too often can actually cause more headaches, called medication overuse headaches or “rebound” headaches. Try to limit use to less than 3 times per week in order to avoid rebound headaches.

If severe and frequent migraines are a problem, your doctor may prescribe a “rescue” medication to treat pain and help stop the migraine after it has started. Some of these medications are called triptans.

They may also prescribe a daily medication that can help reduce the number of migraines in people who get chronic migraines. Some of these medications are pills that were initially approved for other things like blood pressure or seizures.

A new type of medication, called CGRPs (Calcium Gene Receptor Protein) inhibitors, are injected or given intravenously every few months to reduce the number of migraines people experience.

Injections of botulinum toxin (Botox) can also help prevent migraines. Sometimes your healthcare provider may combine medications in order to better treat your symptoms.

Are flashing lights in eyes serious?

“A common misconception is that flashes of light and floaters are always harmless. While this is usually true, there are certain signs and characteristics to look for that would tell you how urgently to be seen by an ophthalmologist.”—Dr. Hoerst

Flashing lights in vision quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your flashing lights in vision.

Take flashing lights in vision quiz

3. Retinal tear or detachment

Symptoms

  • Many new floaters or showers of floaters
  • A lot of bright flashes, not improving
  • Sometimes it looks as though a curtain is dropping down over your field of vision
  • Side or sides of your vision become dark
  • Complete vision loss in one or both eyes

The retina receives and organizes visual information and sends it to the brain to interpret what you see. A retinal tear usually occurs from vitreous (the gel-like substance in the eyes) pulling the retina or from injury to the eye. It causes a part of the retina to separate from the back of the eye.

There is a high risk of the tear getting larger and leading to a bigger separation called a retinal detachment. The initial symptoms of a retinal tear, including flashing lights and loss of vision, are similar to a detachment but tend to be more mild.

Treating retinal tear or detachment

A retinal detachment deprives the retina of oxygen and nutrients and is considered an emergency. Retinal tears may or may not need immediate intervention, depending on symptoms or the size of the tear.

Either way, you should be seen by an ophthalmologist to determine the appropriate treatment and how urgently this treatment must be done.

4. Diabetes

Symptoms

  • Blurry or hazy vision, usually in both eyes
  • Spots/floaters or flashes
  • Difficulty seeing at the center of vision
  • Trouble seeing at night
  • Frequent urination
  • Increased thirst

Diabetes mellitus is when you have high levels of glucose, or sugar, in your blood. Uncontrolled and ongoing diabetes can cause many complications, including damage of small blood vessels, such as those of the retina. This is called diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetes damages vision in two ways. First, the blood vessels can become leaky, causing direct damage to the retina. And because of damage to blood vessels, the eye can also start to form new blood vessels. But these are more likely to leak blood or other fluid, which causes vision to be hazy or blurry. These new blood vessels can also cause scars that can tug at the retina and cause a retinal tear or detachment. This may cause you to see spots, flashes of light, or vision loss.

Treating diabetes

The goal of treating diabetes is to control blood sugar levels. The better your blood sugar levels are, the less likely you are to develop complications of diabetes. People manage it through medications like insulin, changes in their diet, and regular exercise. Controlling blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and maintaining a good weight can also help prevent complications of diabetes.

People with diabetes should have a yearly eye exam by an ophthalmologist to monitor the health of the eyes regularly. If your doctor notices any symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, they may recommend medications that help prevent the development of new, problematic blood vessels.

5. Macular degeneration

Symptoms

  • Distorted or darkened central vision
  • Loss of central vision
  • Floaters or flashing lights

Macular degeneration occurs when the arteries to the macula (a part of the retina), harden with age. This leads to less oxygen and nutrients to this area of the eye that is responsible for clear and sharp central vision.

There are two forms of AMD: Dry AMD is much more common. Wet AMD is more damaging.

Treating macular degeneration

AMD is often treated with combinations of antioxidants called "AREDS" and "AREDS2." These contain vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc, beta-carotene or lutein, and zeaxanthin. The treatments can slow the progression of the disease.

Wet AMD may be treated with injections into the retina with medications called VEGF-inhibitors. These decrease the growth of abnormal blood vessels.

Other possible causes

Other causes of eye flashes include trauma to the eye, rubbing your eyes, looking at bright light, or having cataract or other eye surgery.

Flashing lights in vision quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your flashing lights in vision.

Take flashing lights in vision quiz

When to call a doctor

Though it is not uncommon to have flashes of light and floaters, it is important to get evaluated by an ophthalmologist (an eye physician) to rule out other causes that may need treatment.

  • Flashes or floaters that do not subside
  • Increased shadows in certain areas of your vision

What do flashing lights in vision look like?

“Floating shadows or dark spots in vision, bright flashing lights, looks as though they have stared at bright light or the sun and can see spots floating, painless, stringy or like cobwebs, like flashes from a camera or lightning.”—Dr. Hoerst

When to go to the ER for eye flashes

Go to the ER if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Any sudden new floaters or showers of floaters
  • Bright flashes that are continuous or not improving or are increasing in frequency
  • If it looks like a curtain is dropping down over your field of vision
  • If any area of your vision becomes dark
  • Complete vision loss in one or both eyes
  • Any trauma to the eye
  • A bad headache and eye flashes or floaters affecting both eyes

Eye flash treatments

At-home care

Floaters and eye flashes should be monitored by an ophthalmologist to rule out eye damage. If floaters and eye flashes are infrequent, you can help reduce their occurrence with the following steps:

  • Minimize screen time
  • Wear sunglasses outside
  • Gently massage your temples
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Rest your eyes

Other treatments you may have

  • Dilated eye exam (drops are placed in your eyes to dilate the pupils so the doctor can examine them clearly)
  • Eye pressure test
  • Vision test
  • Imaging of eye
  • Medications, depending on the disease
Hear what 10 others are saying
Dimming of visionPosted August 2, 2021 by S.
I am a scared and worried 39-year-old female and chronic migraine suffer. For the past 2 years, I have had times where I have dimming of vision that lasts for a short time and then it's like someone turned the dimmer back up. I also have flashes of light that come and go. The more concerning part is when I am not experiencing any of my pre-migraine triggers that let me know when I am about to have a migraine. I am expecting the dimming lights and the flashes when I feel good and migraine-free. But I have noticed that I do experience them when I have a migraine, which I had been attributing to having a migraine but now I know that I am experiencing the same symptoms even when I don't already have a migraine. I know they are not triggers because my migraine triggers are normally pain that starts as a small minor persistent pain that grows and spreads. Along with the dimming vision and the flashes, I also have blurred vision at the corners of my field of vision that come and go. But sometimes the blurred vision runs across and then clears. I have also had these symptoms on occasion together but never all at once. I might have one or two of them together or they might be a chain or I might have just one of them at a time. I have talked to my regular optometrist about them and also told him about the halos that I experience too, which are not always with bright lights. Sometimes they just happen when I am sitting in the bathroom using the toilet and there is not a super bright light in front of me. He looked at my eyes and said that the halos are because of my astigmatism and didn't seem overly concerned about the rest of the symptoms. He thought he had seen a dark spot on my eye but said it was just the coloring of my eye. Now I am really wondering if he is right. And, Yes, brain tumors run on both sides of my family. My cousin was just diagnosed with a pituitary tumor and she has some of the same symptoms I am having.
Migraine symptoms or carotid artery stenosisPosted July 16, 2021 by A.
I am a 73-year-old male who has had a history of migraine headaches beginning as a teenager. In the list of migraine symptoms above, "Visual symptoms: bright or colorful spots, sparkles or shimmering lights, zigzagging lines, or stars," this was how mine started for years and years. Fortunately, in later years I was able to stop the progression to the "full-blown" headache with over-the-counter medications. The "zigzagging lines" would sometimes occur monthly and even weekly up until one morning when I experienced a somewhat different "symptom" that affected my right eye. It appeared to be a shade being pulled down only briefly before returning to normal. Initially, I took this as just part of the migraine symptoms I frequently experience. Fortunately, I had an appointment with my optometrist a week or two after the "shade" experience and when he asked if I had anything out of the "usual" I related that information. The optometrist recommended a follow-up with my family doctor and an ultrasound of my carotid arteries, which showed a "severe" blockage in my right artery. Since then I have had a carotid endarterectomy, which was successful. I am very grateful to my optometrist for identifying this serious issue. The final thing I want to share is that since the surgery I have had NO further migraine symptoms, which leads me to believe that the stenosis was most likely the cause of the problem that I had assumed to be the migraine issue for several years. I hope that my story may prompt others to at least have a doctor check their carotids to make sure they are not causing the problem. If this can prevent anyone from having a stroke, it would be well worth it.
Late-life onset migraine with auraPosted May 20, 2021 by M.
One day, suddenly, a horrendous headache hit me and was truly debilitating. Took Exedrin and went to bed. 4 hours later was better but some lingered for about 24 hours. 2 weeks later, a sudden blank spot with little squiggly objects appeared in the right side of my vision, right eye. It lasted about 20 minutes, disappeared, and vision was OK. Slight headache. Ophth. stated I was having Late Life Onset Migraines With Aura. The difference between this and a stroke is I could see something in the blank spot. In the case of a stroke the spot would be blank and would never return to normal because brain cells would have died during the stroke. Sometimes the aura is flashing lights at the corners of both eyes. Then I know the headache is coming, same as the blank spot. He said this type of aura migraine often happens to a person whose family members had migraines when young but they didn't. My mom and sisters all did, but brother and I didn't. We are in '70s now and having the aura migraines. One type is the debilitating pain, another type is the aura and milder pain. I have had both. Doc said to get PLAIN Vitamin B2 capsules. They are available at a health food store like Sprouts, Whole Foods, etc. I take daily. At the first sign of an aura or headache (some aura migraines are painless), I take a dose of the B2 and it often will stop or greatly reduce the pain. The B2 has worked for me several times and I carry some with me at all times. I will never be without it. NOW—all of this said, if you have floaters or flashes IN ONE EYE ONLY this may not be a migraine. It may be a serious eye problem and should be checked out. My flashes have been in both eyes at once. The aura (blank spot with little moving spots in it) the ophth. says is usually only in one eye.
Dr. Hoerst is a board-certified Neurologist. She received her undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Scranton in 2005 and Jefferson Medical College (now Sidney Kimmel Medical College) in 2009. She completed an internal medicine internship, neurology residency and vascular neurology fellowship at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia (2014). After completing her...
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