Flashing lights in the eyes: symptoms, causes and treatment

After noticing some flashes in your eyes, you’re a little worried and wondering what it could be. These flashes, also called photopsycan be a symptom of different conditions, including retinal detachment, where the light-sensitive retina detaches from the back of the eye, or a retinal tear.

While an occasional flash is not cause for undue concern, if it persists or you notice what looks like jagged lightning or shooting stars, you should seek medical attention as it can pose a serious threat to your your view.

This article will highlight the potential causes of seeing flashing lights. It also looks at risk factors and complications, as well as testing to identify what may be the trigger here.

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Symptoms of photopsia

In case of photopsia, you may see the following:

  • Lightnings
  • twinkling lights
  • Stars

Causes of flashing lights in the eyes

Generally, seeing flashing lights is caused by the following, often involving interaction with the retina:

  • Posterior vitreous detachment: This occurs when the jelly in the eye begins to shrink with age. It can pull on the light-sensitive retina, causing flashes.
  • Retinal detachment or retinal tear: This can happen if there is fluid leaking behind the retina. Scar tissue on the retina pulls on the area, causing flashes. This can cause the retina to pull away from the back of the eye. Or, a small tear in the retina allows fluid to leak in and collect behind the retina.
  • Diabetes-related blood in the eye due to diabetic retinopathy: Blood leaking from the vessels can cause scarring on the retina, which can pull, leading to flashes of light and possibly detachment.
  • Migraine-related flashes: These can occur when the brain’s visual cortex is activated during an attack.
  • Transient ischemic attack: blood flow is temporarily blocked in the brain.
  • Seizure: This is an episode of erratic electrical activity in the brain.
  • Damaged optic nerve: This nerve carries visual information from the retina to the brain.

What drugs can cause flashes of light?

Some medications have also been associated with flashing lights. These drugs include:

  • Digoxin: This heart medication may be associated with flickering and flickering of lights and other visual disturbances in some people.
  • Aralen (chloroquine) and Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine): These drugs treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis, or other autoimmune diseases. They can sometimes cause photopsia.

How to deal with flashes of light

Some flashes of light, observed occasionally, do not require any treatment. But if you see frequent flashes of light, you will need to see an eye doctor who can treat the underlying condition causing them.

Possible treatments include:

  • Surgery to reattach your retina can be used for a detached retina.
  • Cryotherapy (freezing treatment) or laser repair may be done for small retinal tears or retinal holes.
  • If you have scarring from diabetic retinopathy, treatment includes using lasers to treat new blood vessels, eye surgery to remove the scars, or eye injections to prevent new blood vessels from forming.

Complications and risk factors associated with flashes of light

If you are experiencing flashes of light, something may be affecting your retina. You may be suffering from a retinal detachment or a tear, both of which can be sight-threatening and require immediate attention.

Risk factors associated with experiencing flashes of light may include:

  • Aging can predispose you to posterior vitreous detachment, where the jelly (vitreous) inside the eye shrinks and pulls away from the retina. Seeing flashes here can be an intermittent event. But if flashes appear suddenly, it may mean that the retina has torn.
  • Extreme myopia (having trouble seeing things at a distance without correction) can make you vulnerable to retinal detachment.
  • Having family members who have had retinal detachments increases the risk.
  • A strong blow to the eye increases the risk.
  • Glaucoma medications that narrow the pupil in the center of the eye, such as Pilocar (pilocarpine), increase the risk.
  • Eye surgery such as cataract removal or a glaucoma drainage procedure increases the risk.

Are there any tests to diagnose the cause of the flashes of light?

If you are experiencing flashes of light, an eye doctor should be able to identify the underlying cause using a clinical examination. Additionally, the ophthalmologist may perform an ultrasound to help detect posterior vitreous or retinal detachment.

When to See a Health Care Provider

Although seeing the occasional flash of light is not a real cause for concern, there are some symptoms that indicate you should seek medical attention. Be sure to contact an eye doctor promptly if:

  • You suddenly find yourself faced with flashes of light, and these are persistent.
  • The flashes of light are accompanied by a flurry of new floaters (strands drifting into your field of vision, or you notice a giant floater.
  • Your side vision is suddenly diminished, or part of your vision appears to be obscured by a curtain.

Summary

You may often see periodic flashes of light due to posterior vitreous detachment as you age. Other common causes of flashes of light include migraine headaches, diabetes-related retinal scarring, and retinal tears and detachments.

Certain medications, such as digitalis or antimalarials like chloroquinoline and hydroxychloroquine, may be associated with flashing lights.

When treatment is needed, it usually involves getting to the root of the problem, such as reattaching the retina or repairing a retinal tear. Be sure to see a health care provider if you notice a sudden rain of new flashes, new floaters, or decreased side vision.

A word from Verywell

If you notice flashing lights in your eyes, keep in mind that while it’s important to be aware of it, it’s not always a cause for concern. Although it is necessary to seek help, fortunately there are effective treatments to deal with the underlying conditions here.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes seeing flashes of light?

    Anything that pulls on the retina can have this effect. Usually it is the result of aging, where the vitreous jelly shrinks and moves away from the back of the eye in a posterior vitreous detachment.

    But sometimes it can be a sign of a severe retinal detachment or tear. It can also be a sign of a migraine in some cases.

  • Can bleeding in the eye due to a condition such as diabetic retinopathy cause flashes of light?

    Yes. The bleeding can scar the retina, and this scarring can pull on the area, causing you to see flashing lights.

  • How can I get rid of flashing lights?

    If the flashing lights are from a posterior vitreous detachment, once this is complete the flashing will stop. Otherwise, you will need to consult an eye doctor who can identify the cause of this problem and recommend the best way to solve it.

By Maxine Lipner

Maxine Lipner is a longtime medical and health writer with over 30 years of experience in the fields of ophthalmology, oncology, and general health and wellness.

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