Eye Health: Guide to Colorblindness

Colorblindness results in an inability to distinguish certain colors.

What Is It?

Colorblindness isn't really what it sounds like. Most people with the condition can see some colors correctly but can't pick out others. "Poor color vision" might be a better name. Whatever you call it, it's more common in men than women. About 1 in 12 men are colorblind, compared with about 1 in 200 women.

Colorblindness causes an inability to distinguish red and green or blue and yellow.

Two Main Types

With the most common kind of colorblindness, you can't tell the difference between some shades of red and green. Other people have a type that makes you confuse certain shades of blue and yellow. Either one can be mild, moderate, or severe.

You see colors with help from rods and cones in your eyes.

How You See Colors

Your retina is a layer at the back of your eyeball that's sensitive to light. It has two kinds of cells: rods and cones. The rods work in dim light, and the cones react to brighter light. They both respond to colors. Their signals go through the optic nerve to your brain, where they're combined to make all the colors in the rainbow. About 12% of women have an extra kind of cone that lets them see 100 times more colors than other people.

Problems with cones in the eye cause colorblindness.

How Colorblindness Happens

If you're colorblind, that means there's a problem with at least one kind of cone. Those cones may be missing, or they might pick up a different color than they should. Either way, they can't send your brain the right information. Since the cones also help you see the fine details of what you're looking at, colorblindness might also make you see a little less sharply.

Colorblindness is usually inherited and people who have it are born with it.

Why It Happens: Genes

Most people who have colorblindness are born with it. That's because it usually begins with the genes you get from your parents. Those genes don't give your body the right instructions about how to make blue, red, and green pigments for your cones. Without the pigments, the cones can't recognize colors.

Some diseases may cause colorblindness.

Why It Happens: Disease

Colorblindness can affect some people who aren't born with it. Certain eye diseases can lead to it, and it also can happen along with leukemia, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, sickle cell anemia, or alcohol use disorder.

Chemical exposure and certain medications may cause colorblindness.

Why It Happens: Medicine or Chemicals

Certain drugs can have colorblindness as a side effect, including some that treat heart disease, high blood pressure, erectile dysfunction, nervous ailments, or emotional disorders. Colorblindness also can come from working around chemicals like fertilizers or solvents.

Colorblindness may become apparent when children start to learn the names of colors.

How It's Found

If your child is colorblind, you may not know it until he starts to learn the names of colors. Or he may have a hard time in school with exams or homework that use color-coded materials. It's a good idea to test kids' color vision around age 4. If colorblindness runs in your family, have your child tested by an eye doctor.

The Ishihara test is used to test if someone is colorblind.

How It's Diagnosed

The main way to tell if someone's colorblind is the Ishihara color test. It uses images of dots in many colors. If you see color correctly, you'll spot a number or some other shape in each image. If you're colorblind, you won't be able to. You can get the test to use on yourself, but an eye doctor can do it better.

Apps can tell you the color of objects.

Living With It: Gadgets

Apps for your cellphone or tablet computer can tell you what color something is. You take a photo, and when you tap on a place in the image, the app tells you the color. Some apps can even tell shades of colors. If you have red-green colorblindness, special lenses may let you see colors more clearly.

Memorize the order of stoplights if you are colorblind.

Living With It: Habits

If you're colorblind, it can help to ask someone to help you put labels on your clothes that tell you what color they are, so you can choose things that match. Arrange your closet so that clothes you can wear together hang close to one another. You also might memorize the order of colors in various objects, like traffic lights.

Colorblindness due to a disease or a side effect of a medication might be treatable.

Is It Treatable?

If your colorblindness started because of a disease or is a side effect of prescription medicines, you might be able to do something about it. For example, your doctor might be able to prescribe a different drug. But the main kind of colorblindness, the type you inherit from your parents, can't be corrected.

Congenital colorblindness may one day be treatable by manipulating cones.

Working Toward a Treatment

Researchers are looking for ways to treat the kind of colorblindness you get through your genes by helping the cones work better. Tests on animals have been promising, and tests on people, called clinical trials, are going on now. Talk with your eye doctor if you're interested in taking part in a trial.

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REFERENCES:

  • Genetics Home Reference: "Achromatopsia."
  • Mayo Clinic: "Poor color vision."
  • National Eye Institute: "Color blindness fact sheet."
  • American Academy of Ophthalmology: "How Humans See in Color," "What Are the Symptoms and Causes of Color Blindness?" "Testing Children for Color Blindness," "How Color Blindness Is Tested."
  • Cleveland Clinic: "Color Blindness."
  • Prevent Blindness: "Color Blindness."
  • Neurotoxicology: "Color vision and occupational chemical exposures: I. An overview of tests and effects."
  • KidsHealth: "Special Needs Factsheet: Color Blindness."
  • American Optometric Association: "Color Vision Deficiency."
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