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Poor color vision

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Poor color vision is an inability to distinguish between certain shades of color. Although most people call it colorblindness, true colorblindness describes a lack of color vision. The ability to see only shades of gray is rare.

Most people with poor color vision can't distinguish between certain shades of red and green in dim light. Some people can't distinguish between red and green shades even in bright light. Less commonly, people can't distinguish between shades of blue and yellow.

Poor color vision is an inherited condition in most cases. However, eye diseases and the effects of some medications also can cause color deficiency. About 8 percent of men and 1 percent of women have a deficiency of color vision.


Your ability to see colors across the spectrum begins with your eyes' ability to accurately distinguish three primary colors — red, blue and green.

Light enters your eyes through your lens and passes through the transparent, jelly-like main body of your eye (vitreous body) to color-sensitive cells (cones) in your retina at the back of your eye. Chemicals in the cones distinguish among colors and send information through your optic nerve to your brain. If your eyes are normal, you're able to distinguish hundreds of blends of colors.

If your cones lack one or more light-sensitive chemicals, you may see only two of the primary colors. The most common color deficiency is an inability to see red and green. Instead of a normal spectrum, a person with red-green color deficiency will have one or two neutral or gray areas where these two colors normally appear.

Often, a person who is red-green deficient doesn't completely screen out both colors. Defects can be mild, moderate or severe, depending on the amount of light-sensitive substances missing from the cones. Also, a reduced sensitivity to red is seldom equal to a reduced sensitivity to green. Therefore, more people struggle to see green than to see red.

Interestingly, most people with red-green deficiency aren't aware of their problem. To them, leaves are green and roses are red, but they might not see the same colors as people with normal color vision. Their "green" may be what normal-sighted people call "yellow," but because they've always heard leaves called green, they interpret what they see as "green."

Poor color vision has several causes:

  • Inherited disorder. In most cases, the genetic information that results in color deficiency is passed along from mother to son. About one in 12 males are born with some degree of color deficiency. Most females possess genes that counteract the deficiency. Inherited color deficiency usually causes a difficulty in perceiving red and green. The severity of your color deficiency doesn't change over your lifetime. You inherit a mild, moderate or severe degree of the disorder.

  • Eye diseases. When the retina of your eye is affected by certain degenerative diseases, you may develop problems seeing blue and yellow. Optic nerve disorders, which can be caused by inflammation of the nerve or nutritional deficiencies such as a shortage of vitamin A, may make it difficult for you to recognize colors the way you once did. Inflammation may cause one eye to perceive colors differently than the other does. The clouded vision that accompanies cataracts may impair your ability to perceive color. As these diseases worsen, so does your color vision. Color deficiencies that accompany eye diseases account for a small percentage of all cases of poor color vision. Vision defects acquired through disease more commonly affect your perception of blue and yellow.

  • Some medications. Color vision can be altered by certain medications such as tamoxifen, which is taken to inhibit breast cancer.

  • Aging. Your ability to see colors steadily improves and peaks in your 30s. Color vision then gradually deteriorates as a normal part of aging.

Poor color vision > 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

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