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Heterochromia: 2 Different-Colored Eyes

Dog with heterochromia

What is heterochromia?

Heterochromia is the term used to describe when someone has more than one eye color. In many cases, this means each eye is a different color — for example, one eye is brown and the other eye is green — but it can also mean there are at least two distinct colors in different parts of one eye or both eyes.

Heterochromia is a rare condition that affects the iris, the colored part of the eye. A pigment within the iris called melanin gives eyes their distinct color.

SEE RELATED: The mystery surrounding hazel eyes

Heterochromia iridum and heterochromia iridis

When someone’s eyes have any form of multicoloration, they probably have heterochromia iridum or heterochromia iridis. Either name can be used to describe the condition mentioned above: eye-related heterochromia.

Different forms of heterochromia can affect skin and hair, so attaching iridum or iridis clarifies that only the eyes are affected.

Causes of heterochromia

A genetic mutation is believed to cause almost all congenital forms of heterochromia. The mutation is benign, meaning that it doesn’t relate to an underlying disease or illness and won’t cause any harm.

This random genetic “surprise” affects the melanin levels on different parts of the iris(es). Of the common eye colors, brown eyes have the most melanin and blue eyes have the least.

Animals can have heterochromia, too. At some point, you’ve probably noticed a Siberian husky, Australian shepherd or border collie with two different-colored eyes. Along with other domestic animals, these dogs experience the same genetic phenomenon as humans.

Heterochromia is usually harmless when present from birth or early development (congenital heterochromia), but it can also point to an underlying condition such as Waardenburg syndrome.

Less commonly, heterochromia can occur later in life due to disease, injury or the use of certain medications. This is called acquired heterochromia.

LEARN MORE ABOUT the causes of heterochromia.

Types of heterochromia

There are three main types of heterochromia, each with its own unique visual traits:

  • Complete heterochromia: Two “mismatched” eyes of completely different colors.

  • Central heterochromia: Multicolored eyes that start with one color near the pupil, then shift to a different color toward the edge of the iris. Central heterochromia usually affects both eyes.

  • Sectoral heterochromia: Two-colored eyes that take on more of a “slice” or “wedge” pattern on each affected eye. Also called partial heterochromia, it represents the type with the most variety. The secondary color can look like a thin slice of color in one eye and take up two-thirds of the iris in another eye. It can occur in one or both eyes.

A condition called anisocoria can easily be confused with heterochromia, which was often the case with David Bowie. Anisocoria gives the appearance of two different eye colors, but the variation only relates to pupil size — which can cause one eye to look darker than the other — not the actual eye color.

FAQs

Q: Is having heterochromia, or different-colored eyes, a bad thing? 

A: Not usually, but it depends on the cause. Congenital heterochromia is harmless and does not reflect an underlying illness. However, acquired heterochromia may be caused by certain glaucoma eye drops, eye injury or disease, and it can reveal a problem. If you notice a rapid change in your eye color, see an eye doctor.

Q: Is heterochromia more common in males or females?

A: Heterochromia is more common in females than in males based on a study performed several decades ago in Austria.

Q: What’s the difference between central heterochromia and hazel eyes? 

A: An eye with central heterochromia has one distinct color around the pupil and a different color around the outer edge of the iris. Hazel eyes are a mixture of different colors throughout the entire surface of the iris. For example, central heterochromia looks more like a target with multiple rings of color and hazel looks more like confetti. 

STILL HAVE QUESTIONS? Read more of our Heterochromia FAQs

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