Silver Sparks
October 22, 2004 7:02 AM   Subscribe

This morning I woke up, coughed, and saw silver sparks in the air in front of my face. They were like little bits of airbourne lint, only silver, and not really there. I watched them pop up here and there for about ten seconds before they disappeared. I've seen them before, although not often, and the last occurrence was at least three or four years ago. They usually seem to appear spontaneously. Does anyone know what they are, and if they portend anything serious?
posted by orange swan to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes I see them, too. It seems to be when I am short of breath or it is very cold outside. Do you also become dizzy just before/while they appear? I don't know if it's a bad sign or not - I suppose I've been alive as long as I have and it hasn't killed me yet.
posted by dual_action at 7:11 AM on October 22, 2004

There's no chance these are droplets of saliva that are catching the light in a funny way?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:17 AM on October 22, 2004

posted by dorian at 7:17 AM on October 22, 2004

I think this is what is called 'seeing stars' and I'm pretty sure it has to do with not enough blood getting to the visual parts of the brain. So if you stand up really quickly and all the blood rushes out of your head you might see stars. Thats what happens to me. It has also happened when I've had really low blood sugar.
posted by sciurus at 7:20 AM on October 22, 2004

I get those everytime I cough hard in the dark, though not quite as long-lived in my vision as yours. I always figured it was just some variant of phosphenes caused by muscles and nerves being strained by the coughing action.

Thank you for the word, dorian. I had no idea those things had a name.
posted by brownpau at 7:25 AM on October 22, 2004

Were you chewing on Wint-o-green lifesavers at the time?
posted by spilon at 7:28 AM on October 22, 2004

I have the same thing. I don't think it's a big deal.
posted by agregoli at 7:31 AM on October 22, 2004

I don't see how they could be droplets of saliva, stupidsexyflanders, because the droplets aren't likely to remain airbourne for up to ten seconds after I'd finished coughing.

I wasn't chewing on lifesavers, no.

Thanks for the word phosphenes, dorian, because googling "silver sparks" wasn't exactly productive.

From everyone else's comments, I'm beginning to suspect this may be yet another weird and wonderful side effect of my low blood pressure, and probably nothing to worry about. Who-hoo! I'm not going mad, I'm not about to have a stroke. I'm just watching a personal and illusionary mini-fireworks display:-)
posted by orange swan at 7:38 AM on October 22, 2004

You are swallowing piskies or faries while asleep.
posted by Capn at 7:40 AM on October 22, 2004

Something to worry about is "flashes of light," which may be the sign of a detached or torn retina. This is something that can be repaired if caught early enough.

I had this a couple of years ago.
posted by jpburns at 8:04 AM on October 22, 2004

I have low-ish b.p. and since eigth grade, whenever I cough/get punched/stand up suddenly/strain really hard while pooping, I get the same thing. My "stars" are mostly arond the periphery, tho.
posted by notsnot at 8:12 AM on October 22, 2004

strain really hard while pooping

Don't, man. That's just plain unhealthy. If it ain't wanting to come out, don't force it!

Otherwise, I report the same as everyone else: I get 'em, it's an eyeball thing, and it's got something to do with rapidly-changing blood pressure. No worries. ('cept that time I coughed and then passed out. That was a little freaky.)
posted by five fresh fish at 8:53 AM on October 22, 2004

I get this fairly often when I sneeze in the shower, for some reason. They are kind of cool - little wiggling lights in my peripheral vision that hang out for 30 seconds or more. I worry a little about them too but they haven't become more frequent and don't seem connected to any problem.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:04 AM on October 22, 2004

This happens to me, often in conjunction with dizzyness that I get when going from sitting/lying down to standing. I don't know what it is.
posted by corpse at 9:36 AM on October 22, 2004

I get them occasionally too - always in the periphery of my vision. I really like them and always think of them as my own personal fairies.
OK, I know they're not real, but I love to entertain myself with the idea that they are real, but the rest of the time we just can't see them... ; )
posted by widdershins at 9:40 AM on October 22, 2004

Hey I have low blood pressure and I get those too, very rarely. I always thought they were acid flashbacks.
posted by jessamyn at 9:50 AM on October 22, 2004

I occasionally wake up in the middle of the night with this - usually I get confused and think I'm being attacked by a swarm of bugs. It's disconcerting.
posted by advil at 9:54 AM on October 22, 2004

I've experienced exactly this on a fairly regular basis since I was a kid -- 3 to 10 seconds of 30 to 60 tiny bright sparks floating around whenever I've been under high strain, such as coughing, sneezing, or standing up too quickly when at rest. If it's harmful, I've never been able to detect what's been harmed in the thousands of times it's happened.

For what it's worth, I have relatively low blood pressure.
posted by majick at 10:46 AM on October 22, 2004

When I'm tired, moving my eyeball quickly to one corner of my eye or the other provides a nice bright circle in my vision. Same principle. The circle is my optic nerve.

When it happens it's an excellent sign that I'm not getting enough sleep.
posted by kindall at 11:29 AM on October 22, 2004

Happens to me too. When I was younger, I also got dizzy when I stood up too fast (apparently moreso than everyone else) so they ran a battery of tests and decided I was fine.
posted by jragon at 11:35 AM on October 22, 2004

are you nunzilla?

posted by Kwantsar at 1:23 PM on October 22, 2004

For the record, my sparks don't look anything like that! There are no yellow rays involved.
posted by orange swan at 3:08 PM on October 22, 2004

"yet another weird and wonderful side effect of my low blood pressure"

Oh, thank goodness! I was worried that you accidentally ate Tinkerbell! ;-P
posted by mischief at 3:32 PM on October 22, 2004

You are swallowing piskies or faries while asleep.

posted by piskycritter at 4:43 PM on October 22, 2004

A drop in blood pressure when going from laying down or sitting to standing up is called orthostatic hypotension.

Seeing the floaters while you're pooping/sneezing/coughing/giving birth is probably linked to the increases and decreases in blood pressure associated with the valsalva manuever.

If you've had floaters/flashes your entire life, it's one thing, but if these are new, you should probably get an eye exam to be sure, says some folks.
posted by gramcracker at 5:17 PM on October 22, 2004

Nah, this is normal. The cough causes a Valsalva, blood doesn't make it to your retina for a few moments, and hypoxic retinal neurons fire off half-cocked. Nothing to be worried about.

Retina's particularly vulnerable to this because:
  • it only has 1 blood supply, the ophthalmic artery.
  • the photoreceptor neurons are quite large and have a very high metabolic demand.
  • Like the rest of the CNS, autoregulation of artery diameter decreases the blood supply when it's not being used, such as during sleep or eye closure. So when you just wake up your blood vessels may still be stopped down a bit.
If you enjoy this, there is a certain shade of blue you can stare at that allows you to see the red corpuscles moving through the transparent capillaries that overlay the retinal surface. Because they are so close to the retinal surface, they are in perfect focus, and you can watch the corpuscles squeeze through the twisty little vessels with your every heartbeat. Much fun. I don't know the RGB spec for the shade of blue in question though - anybody have it handy?
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:23 PM on October 22, 2004 [1 favorite]

ikkyu2, you MUST find that color!
posted by tss at 11:10 PM on October 22, 2004

I received this from a lurker named Jan, and although I don't believe this is the explanation for my experience, I am going to post it in the interests of having a complete database for anyone researching this sort of symptom in the future:

That could be a visual migraine, which is perfectly harmless and you can have one or two and never have another one or very rarely.
The tipoff with visual migraines is that the twinklies are often followed by a low grade headache that lasts maybe 4 to 6 hours and goes away. I had two in a week, and never had another one. Sometimes instead of twinklies, you can get a sort of expanding circle, often 6 sided, in rainbow colors. (I had one of each.) You can google for "visual migraines" and find all you need to know if you think it might be, but perfectly harmless anyway, and safe to ignore once you're sure that's what it is.
It is probably low blood pressure, I just didn't want you to worry if you ever saw the circle, it's a little weird if you've never seen one before.

posted by orange swan at 8:43 PM on October 23, 2004

It's not a migraine - ten seconds is too short. Visual migraine auras tend to last 5-15 minutes.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:51 PM on October 26, 2004

Here is the San Francisco Exploratorium exhibit which introduced me to the phenomenon of seeing your own retinal vasculature. After you have seen it once, you can often see it on a clear day while staring at the sky.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:02 PM on October 26, 2004

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