Color blindness is not a form of blindness at all, but a deficiency in the way you see color. With this vision problem, you have difficulty distinguishing certain colors, such as blue and yellow or red and green.
Color blindness (or, more accurately, color vision deficiency) is an inherited condition that affects males more frequently than females. According to Prevent Blindness America, an estimated 8 percent of males and less than 1 percent of females have color vision problems.
Red-green color deficiency is the most common form of color blindness.
Much more rarely, a person may inherit a trait that reduces the ability to see blue and yellow hues. This blue-yellow color deficiency usually affects men and women equally.
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Color Blindness Symptoms and Signs
Do you have difficulty telling if colors are blue and yellow, or red and green? Do other people sometimes inform you that the color you think you are seeing is wrong?
If so, these are primary signs that you have a color vision deficiency.
Contrary to popular belief, it is rare for a color blind person to see only in shades of gray.
Most people who are considered "color blind" can see colors, but certain colors appear washed out and are easily confused with other colors, depending on the type of color vision deficiency they have.
If you develop color vision problems when normally you have been able to see a full range of color, then you definitely should visit your doctor. Sudden or gradual loss of color vision can indicate any number of underlying health problems, such as cataracts.
Color blindness testing can help determine the kind of color deficiency you have.
What Causes Color Blindness?
Color blindness occurs when light-sensitive cells in the retina fail to respond appropriately to variations in wavelengths of light that enable people to see an array of colors.
Photoreceptors in the retina are called rods and cones. Rods are more plentiful (there are approximately 100 million rods in the human retina) and they are more sensitive to light, but rods are incapable of perceiving color.
The 6 to 7 million cones in the human retina are responsible for color vision, and these photoreceptors are concentrated in the central zone of the retina called the macula. The center of the macula is called the fovea, and this tiny (0.3 mm diameter) area contains the highest concentration of cones in the retina and is responsible for our most acute color vision.
Inherited forms of color blindness often are related to deficiencies in certain types of cones or outright absence of these cones.
Besides differences in genetic makeup, other causes of color vision defects or loss include:
- Parkinson's disease (PD). Because Parkinson's disease is a neurological disorder, light-sensitive nerve cells in the retina where vision processing occurs may be damaged and cannot function properly.
- Cataracts. Clouding of the eye's natural lens that occurs with cataracts can "wash out" color vision, making it much less bright. Fortunately, cataract surgery can restore bright color vision when the cloudy natural lens is removed and replaced with an artificial intraocular lens.
- Tiagabine for epilepsy. An antiepileptic drug known as tiagabine has been shown to reduce color vision in about 41 percent of those taking the drug, although effects do not appear to be permanent.
- Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON). Particularly prevalent among males, this type of inherited optic neuropathy can affect even carriers who don't have other symptoms but do have a degree of color blindness. Red-green color vision defects primarily are noted with this condition.
- Kallman's syndrome. This inherited condition involves failure of the pituitary gland, which can lead to incomplete or unusual gender-related development such as of sexual organs. Color blindness can be one symptom of this condition.
Color blindness also can occur when aging processes damage retinal cells. An injury or damage to areas of the brain where vision processing takes place also can cause color vision deficiencies.
Color Blindness Treatment & Strategies
Gene therapy has cured color blindness in monkeys, according to study results announced in September 2009 by researchers at the University of Washington and University of Florida.
While early findings look promising, gene therapy would not be considered for humans until treatments are proven to be safe.
The millions of cone cells in our eyes are responsible for color vision. They are most concentrated in the central zone of the retina.
Meanwhile, there is no cure for color blindness. But some coping strategies may help you function better in a color-oriented world.
Most people are able to adapt to color vision deficiencies without too much trouble. But some professions, such as graphic design and occupations that require handling various colors of electrical wiring, depend on accurate color perception.
If you become aware of a color deficiency early enough in life, you may be able to compensate by training for one of the many careers that are not as dependent on the ability to see in a full range of colors.
Diagnosing color vision deficiency early also may prevent learning problems during school years, particularly because many learning materials rely heavily on color perception. If your child has a color deficiency, be sure to speak with his or her teachers about it, so they can plan their lessons and presentations accordingly.
Some people use special lenses to enhance color perception, which are filters available in either contact lens or eyeglass lens form. These types of lenses are available from a limited number of eye care practitioners in the United States and other countries.
If your regular eye doctor doesn't handle these types of lenses, ask for a referral so that you can seek out someone who might be able to assist you.
You also can learn ways to work around your inability to pick out certain colors. For example, you might organize and label your clothing to avoid color clashes. (Ask friends or family members to help!)
And you might remember items by their order rather than their color. An example would be to recognize that the red light is at the top of the traffic signal, and green is at the bottom.
New apps for Android and Apple devices may also help with color detection. Please see our downloads page for examples of these apps, including one called Visolve.
Make sure you see your eye care practitioner for extra advice if you have difficulty distinguishing colors or if you have observed this difficulty in your child.
Gary Heiting, OD, reviewed this article.
Color vision. Ophthalmology, 3rd ed. 2008.
Antiepileptic drugs and visual function. Pediatric Neurology. June 2007.
Male prevalence of acquired color vision defects in asymptomatic carriers of Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. Investigative Ophthalmology Vision Science. May 2007.
Potential early markers of Parkinson disease in idiopathic REM sleep behavior disorder. Neurology. March 2006.
Marilyn Haddrill also contributed to this article.
[Page updated February 2015]