Double vision: Diplopia and ghost images

simulation of double vision

Are you experiencing double vision?

If you start seeing double images when your eyes normally work well together, you should take it seriously.

While double vision (also called diplopia) may be temporary, you should still see an eye doctor immediately to find out what's going on.

Double vision (diplopia): Causes

Temporary episodes of double vision can happen for many reasons, including drinking too much alcohol or being overly tired. This type of short-term double vision is usually not cause for worry.

But if the diplopia is long-lasting or keeps coming back, reasons for it can include:

  • Stroke, head injury, brain tumor, brain swelling or brain aneurysm. A head or brain injury, tumor, stroke or related condition can cause double vision that comes on suddenly. After examining you, your eye doctor may refer you to a specialist such as a neurologist or neurosurgeon for further testing and treatment.
  • Corneal irregularities. Ghost images can be caused by such conditions as keratoconus (cone-shaped corneas) and corneal dystrophies (deterioration of the corneal structure). These ghost images can be harder to manage. Many corneal irregularities can be helped when you wear special contact lenses or use dry eye treatments such as eye drops or punctal plugs. Some people with this condition may need surgery, such as a corneal transplant or Intacs implants.
  • Dry eyes. Severe dry eyes, such as Sjogren's syndrome, can cause ghost images due to insufficient or poor quality tears. Many people who suffer from dry eyes can be helped by eye drops (over-the-counter or prescription), punctal plugs, eye vitamins, lid hygiene techniques or a combination of all these treatments. It's very important to have a dry eye workup and treatment, if necessary, from an eye doctor who has an interest in this disorder and has kept up to date on the latest diagnosis and treatment methods.
  • Refractive surgery. If you have had LASIK, PRK, or any refractive surgery to help you see better without glasses or contacts, you may experience some double or ghost imaging because of changes to your corneas. An irregular corneal surface, caused by the surgery itself or by dryness, may cause light rays to scatter instead of focusing properly. This problem usually clears up within weeks or months. But you may need to use eye drops for a while. In some cases, a second laser vision correction procedure might be necessary.
  • Cataracts. Diplopia caused by cataracts usually in one eye only. This is because the clouding of the eye's natural lens that sits behind the pupil can cause light rays to scatter in different directions, creating multiple but incomplete images, especially when you look at lights. Cataract surgery usually will eliminate this ghost image problem.
  • Cranial nerve palsies. Double vision also can be caused by paralysis or loss of coordination of one or more muscles that control the position and teaming of the eyes due to a cranial nerve palsy. Cranial nerve palsies can be caused by diabetes, head injury, tumor, multiple sclerosis, meningitis, high blood pressure, blockage in an artery or an aneurysm.Most cranial nerve palsies go away without treatment when the condition that caused them improves. But some people may need vision therapy, surgery or special prism in eyeglasses to help with the double vision.

More about ghost images

Rather than clearly seeing a double image, you may instead notice only a partial or "ghost image" around or to the side of what you are looking at, especially a light source.

Ghost images, like those created by cataracts, usually are seen by only one eye. Ghost images can occur after corneal surgery, such as LASIK, PRK or a corneal transplant. Most of these problems disappear when the problem is resolved, like after cataract surgery or when the refractive surgery heals.

More about double vision

Obviously, most of us don't expect to see double images. But in truth, the ability to see a single image with two eyes involves a complex system of muscles, nerves and other eye parts.

When two eyes correctly and accurately point and focus at the same time, we see only one image of the world. When two eyes point and focus differently from each other, double vision may happen.

Some people are born with eyes that don't work together, a condition called strabismus. Eyes can be crossed inward or turn outward. One eye can even go up while the other goes down.

If you have strabismus, you will see double if your brain allows it, because each eye sees a different thing at the same time. But the brain usually adapts by shutting down or ignoring the information from one eye. This is called suppression. Surgery or vision therapy can help many people with strabismus.

Diplopia treatment

Generally, treatments for double vision can include surgery, vision therapy, prism in the glasses prescription or medications.


Double vision can occur when the eyes look in separate directions because of cranial nerve palsies, strabismus or other reasons.

It's important to see an eye doctor to help determine the cause of the double vision as soon as possible. Your eye doctor may then treat the double vision or send you to a specialist (such as a neurologist or neurosurgeon).

If you have sudden double vision that you ignore and then it goes away over a long time period, this may mean your brain has tuned out one of the images (suppressed it). Although this is certainly more comfortable and bearable for you, it's not a good sign. Suppression could be masking a serious problem that needs to be solved.

In fact, the condition may be a matter of life or death, such as a brain tumor or aneurysm. So see an eye doctor immediately if double vision develops.

Some conditions causing double vision are difficult, if not impossible, to fix. Some strokes and nerve palsies cause fluctuating double vision that can't be measured accurately enough to correct.

In these cases, you may need a period of adjustment so that you can learn to live with the symptoms. Your eye doctor can help by prescribing prism, patching one eye for periods of time, fogging parts of your glasses lenses or using special contact lenses.

In most cases, your brain will eventually suppress one of the images so you can get on with your life. As with most life changes, patience is a virtue in dealing with such problems!

Page updated April 2019