What is color blindness?

Color blindness — also known as color vision deficiency (CVD) — is a condition where you don’t see colors in the traditional way. This can happen if certain cells known as photoreceptors, or more specifically cones, in your eyes are missing or not working correctly. These cones typically allow you to see each color on the rainbow. If you have color blindness, you might not see each of these colors.

Don’t confuse color blindness with a type of blindness (a condition where you have limited or no sight) — color blindness is simply a change in the way your eyes see color.

We all see a continuum (range) of colors, but which ones we see depends on how well our photoreceptors function. Photoreceptors are cells within your eyes that respond to specific wavelengths of light. Everyone sees color slightly differently, and the way we see colors may also change as we age if we develop certain age-related eye conditions such as cataracts.

Why do we see different colors?

When we see different colors, what we’re really perceiving is different wavelengths of light. Your eyes contain photoreceptors (cells) that process light entering the eye to help you perceive color. Rods detect differences between dark and light. Cone cells detect colors when lighting conditions are bright enough. Each wavelength corresponds to a different shade in the visible spectrum of light. Reds are the longest wavelengths, greens are medium and blues are the shortest.

What colors of the rainbow do people with color blindness see?

Generally, people with color blindness have difficulty articulating what they perceive, but scientists suggest the typical colorblind person might see colors as varying shades of blue and yellow. For example, what a color-normal person calls purple and what a colorblind person calls purple may not be the same color. Or, both people may look at the same color and call it different things.

A person's color vision falls into one of the following categories:

Full color vision/Trichromacy: If you were born with normal-functioning color pigments in all three cone types in your eyes, you’re a trichromat. You’d see six colors in your rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

Color vision deficiency/Dichromacy: If you were born with missing or malfunctioning (not working) cones of one of the three types in your eyes, you’re a dichromat or dichromatous. What colors you see depends upon which cones are missing or malfunctioning.

If you’re a dichromat, there are several specific types of color deficiency you might experience, including:

Red-Green Color Deficiency:

  • Protanopia: In this case, your long-length red-responsive photoreceptors also aren’t functioning correctly, so you won’t see reds or greens properly. Colors that contain red will also look different to you. Your rainbow will consist mainly of what trichromats call blues and golds.
  • Deuteranopia: This time your green-responsive photoreceptors aren’t functioning. If you’re a deuteranope, your rainbow also appears as a series of blues and golds.
  • Protanomaly: In this type of color deficiency, you have some red-responsive cones, but they aren’t working correctly. Your rainbow appears muted. Red may appear as dark gray and every color that contains red may be less bright.
  • Deuteranomaly: In this case, green-responsive cones don’t work as they should. It’s the most common form of color blindness. Your rainbow is most likely blues, yellows and generally muted colors.

Blue-Yellow Color Deficiency:

  • Tritanopia: This is blue-yellow color blindness. It means you have no blue-responsive cone cells. Your rainbow may contain reds, light blues, pinks and lavender.
  • Tritanomaly: This type of color blindness is when your blue-responsive cone cells work, but not as well as a full color-sighted person. Your rainbow has greener blues and there is little or no yellow.

Fully Color Blind/Monochromacy: If you’re a monochromat, you have a very limited or no ability to see color. Your vision might be a lot like watching a black and white television or an old black and white movie. Your rainbow would appear in varying shades of gray.

Monochromats come in two types:

  • Blue cone monochromacy: In this type of monochromacy, you only have one cone type that contains working photoreceptor cells. When only one cone type works, it’s difficult to tell between certain colors, and mostly you see grays. Blue cone monochromats may also have poor vision in general, light sensitivity, nystagmus or shaking of the eyes, and near-sightedness. Blue cone monochromacy is rare.
  • Rod monochromacy: In this condition your retinal rod photoreceptors work but all or most cones are absent or malfunctioning. It’s also called achromatopsia. You see everything in grayscale. Achromats are also likely to suffer from low vision, nystagmus and light sensitivity.

How common is color blindness?

Color blindness is uncommon, but it does run in families. This means that if other members of your family have experienced color blindness, you’re more likely to have it too. Color blindness can happen in both men and women, but it’s much more commonly seen in men. This is because color blindness is passed down through your genetic code.

Sometimes, color blindness can also show up later in life. In some cases, it may have been present at birth but not noticed until later. In other cases, injuries or diseases of the eye can cause malfunctions in the parts of the visual system that allow color vision, including not just the photoreceptors but also the nerves and some retinal layers.

How is color blindness inherited?

Red-green color blindness, the most common form by far, is a genetic mutation that is passed to children on the X chromosome. At conception, an egg carries an X chromosome and the sperm cell can carry either an X chromosome or a Y chromosome. If you have an XX chromosome pair, the resulting baby will be female. If you have an XY chromosome pair, the baby will be male. The gene responsible for color blindness is located on the X chromosome. In other words, color blindness is an X-linked recessive condition. If a female inherits one normal color vision gene and one mutated gene, she won’t be color blind, because it’s a recessive trait. If she inherits two mutated color vision genes, she’ll be color blind.

Since boys have only one X chromosome, their chance of inheriting red-green color blindness is much greater. Boys always inherit their X chromosome from their mother. If mom is color blind, or if mom’s dad is colorblind, her son will be too.

What causes color blindness?

Color blindness is caused by a change (mutation) to your genes. In most cases, you’re color blind from birth. When you’re color blind, it’s usually because your eyes don’t contain the normally functioning cones needed for full color vision.

What are the signs and symptoms of color blindness?

You might have a form of color blindness if you have trouble:

  • Telling the difference between certain colors.
  • Seeing the brightness of certain colors.
  • Distinguishing the difference between certain shades.

The signs and symptoms of color blindness can vary depending on the type. If you have inherited your color blindness (hereditary color blindness), the signs are often barely noticeable because you’ve always seen colors the same way. You may not realize that there’s a different way to see colors. However, if you have acquired color blindness — meaning you have color blindness because of an injury or illness — you may notice the shift in how you see colors, although some diseases affecting color vision progress too slowly for changes to be noticeable.

Who’s at risk for color blindness?

For most people with color blindness, the condition is there from birth. It’s passed down through their family. However, you can also develop color blindness from an eye injury, illness or even certain medications.

You might be at a higher risk of color blindness if you:

Does color blindness cause other health problems?

Red-green color blindness, the most common form, does not lead to additional vision loss or total blindness. But because the cone cells of the retina are also used to see fine details, people who are color blind may have vision that is less sharp. The other more rare forms of color vision can accompany other vision problems that do need to be taken care of by an eye doctor — especially in children. Anyone who suspects color blindness should start by scheduling an eye exam.

If you or your child is color blind, talk to your eye care provider about assistive aids that can help with your vision. If you ever notice other vision issues that come on suddenly and seem to be getting worse, reach out to your provider right away.

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