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Poor color vision

Medically reviewed on March 7, 2018

Overview

Poor or deficient color vision is an inability to see the difference between certain colors, but color is still seen. Many people commonly use the term "colorblind" for this condition. But true colorblindness — in which everything is seen in shades of black and white — is rare.

Poor color vision is usually inherited. Men are more likely to be born with poor color vision. Most people with poor color vision can't distinguish between certain shades of red and green. Less commonly, people with poor color vision can't distinguish between shades of blue and yellow.

Certain eye diseases and some medications also can cause poor color vision.

Anatomy of the eye

Your eye is a complex and compact structure measuring about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter. It receives millions of pieces of information about the outside world, which are quickly processed by your brain.

Symptoms

You may have poor color vision and not know it. Some people figure out that they or their child has the condition when it causes confusion — such as when there are problems differentiating the colors in a traffic light or interpreting color-coded learning materials.

People affected by poor color vision may not be able to distinguish:

  • Different shades of red and green
  • Different shades of blue and yellow
  • Any colors

The most common color deficiency is an inability to see some shades of red and green. Often, a person who is red-green or blue-yellow deficient isn't completely insensitive to both colors. Defects can be mild, moderate or severe.

When to see a doctor

If you suspect you have problems distinguishing certain colors or your color vision changes, see an eye doctor for testing. It's important that children get comprehensive eye exams, including color vision testing, before starting school.

There's no cure for inherited poor color vision, but if illness or eye disease is the cause, treatment may improve color vision.

Causes

Seeing colors across the light spectrum is a complex process that begins with your eyes' ability to distinguish the primary colors red, blue and green.

Light enters your eye through the cornea and passes through the lens and transparent, jelly-like tissue in your eye (vitreous body) to color-sensitive cells (cones) at the back of your eye in the retina. Chemicals in the cones distinguish colors and send that information through your optic nerve to your brain.

If your eyes are normal, you can distinguish different colors, but if your cones lack one or more light-sensitive chemicals, you may see only two of the primary colors.

Poor color vision has several causes:

  • Inherited disorder. Inherited poor color vision is much more common in males than in females. The most common color deficiency is red-green, with blue-yellow deficiency being much less common. It is rare to have no color vision at all.

    You can inherit a mild, moderate or severe degree of the disorder. Inherited poor color vision usually affects both eyes, and the severity doesn't change over your lifetime.

  • Diseases. Some conditions that can cause color deficits are sickle cell anemia, diabetes, macular degeneration, Alzheimer's disease, glaucoma, Parkinson's disease, chronic alcoholism and leukemia. One eye may be more affected than the other, and the color deficit may get better if the underlying disease can be treated.
  • Certain medications. Some medications can alter color vision, such as some drugs that treat heart problems, high blood pressure, erectile dysfunction, infections, nervous disorders and psychological problems.
  • Aging. Your ability to see colors deteriorates slowly as you age.
  • Chemicals. Exposure to some chemicals in the workplace, such as carbon disulfide and fertilizers, may cause loss of color vision.

Diagnosis

If you have trouble seeing certain colors, your eye doctor can test to see if you have a color deficiency. You'll likely be given a thorough eye exam and shown specially designed pictures made of colored dots that have numbers or shapes in a different color hidden in them.

If you have a color vision deficiency, you'll find it difficult or impossible to see some of the patterns in the dots.

Computer or phone application tests can be useful for a quick color vision screening, but they may not be as accurate as standardized in-office testing.

Treatment

There are no treatments for most types of color vision difficulties, unless the color vision problem is related to the use of certain medicines or eye conditions. Discontinuing the medication causing your vision problem or treating the underlying eye disease may result in better color vision.

Wearing a colored filter over eyeglasses or a colored contact lens may enhance your perception of contrast between colors. But such lenses won't improve your ability to see all colors.

Some rare retinal disorders associated with color deficiency could possibly be modified with gene replacement techniques. These treatments are under study and might become available in the future.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Try the following tips to help you work around your poor color vision.

  • Memorize the order of colored objects. If it's important to know individual colors, such as with traffic lights, memorize the order of the colors.
  • Label colored items that you want to match with other items. Have someone with good color vision help you sort and label your clothing. Arrange your clothes in your closet or drawers so that colors that can be worn together are near each other.

Preparing for an appointment

You can start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner, or make an appointment with a doctor who specializes in eye disorders (ophthalmologist or optometrist).

Preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For poor color vision, some basic questions to ask include:

  • How might having poor color vision affect my life?
  • Will poor color vision affect my current or future occupation?
  • Are there treatments for poor color vision?
  • Do you have any brochures or other printed materials I can have? What websites do you recommend?
  • Are there special glasses or contact lenses I can wear to improve my color vision?

What to expect from your doctor

Examples of questions your doctor may ask, include:

  • When did you first notice having trouble seeing certain colors?
  • Does it affect one eye or both?
  • Does anyone in your family (including parents and grandparents) have poor color vision?
  • Do you have any medical conditions?
  • Are you exposed to chemicals in your workplace?
  • Are you taking any medicines or supplements?

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