Color blindness is an abnormal condition characterized by the inability to clearly distinguish different colors of the spectrum. The difficulties can be mild to severe. It is a misleading term because people with color blindness are not blind. Rather, they tend to see colors in a limited range of hues; a rare few may not see colors at all.
Normal color vision requires the use of specialized receptor cells called cones, which are located in the retina of the eye. There are three types of cones, termed red, blue, and green, which enable people to see a wide spectrum of colors. An abnormality, or deficiency, of any of the types of cones will result in abnormal color vision.
There are three basic variants of color blindness. Red/green color blindness (deuteranopia) is the most common deficiency, affecting 8% of Caucasian males and 0.5% of Caucasian females. The prevalence varies with culture.
Blue color blindness (protanopia) is an inability to distinguish both blue and yellow, which are seen as white or gray. Protanopia is quite rare and has equal prevalence in males and females. It is common for young children to have blue/green confusion that becomes less pronounced in adulthood. Blue color deficiency often appears in people who have physical disorders such as liver disease or diabetes mellitus.
A total inability to distinguish colors (achromatopsia) is exceedingly rare. These affected individuals view the world in shades of gray. They frequently have poor visual acuity and are extremely sensitive to light (photophobia), which causes them to squint in ordinary light.
Red/green and blue color blindness appear to be located on at least two different gene locations. The majority of affected individuals are males. Females are carriers but are not normally affected. This indicates that the X chromosome is one of the locations for color blindness. Male offspring of females who carry the altered gene have a fifty-fifty chance of being color-blind. The rare female that has red/green color blindness, or rarer
Achromatopsia, the complete inability to distinguish color, is an autosomal recessive disease of the retina. This means that both parents have one copy of the altered gene but do not have the disease. Each of their children has a 25% chance of not having the gene, a 50% chance of having one altered gene (and, like the parents, being unaffected), and a 25% risk of having both the altered gene and the condition. In 1997, the achromatopsia gene was located on chromosome 2.
Researchers studying red/green color blindness in the United Kingdom reported an average prevalence of only 4.7% in one group. Only 1% of Eskimo males are color blind. Approximately 3% of boys from Saudi Arabia and 4% from India were found to have deficient color vision. Red/green color blindness may slightly increase an affected person's chances of contracting leprosy. Pre-term infants exhibit an increased prevalence of blue color blindness. Achromatopsia has a prevalence of about one in 33,000 in the United States and affects males and females equally.
Color blindness is sometimes acquired. Chronic illnesses that can lead to color blindness include Alzheimer disease, diabetes mellitus, glaucoma, leukemia, liver disease, chronic alcoholism, macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson disease, sickle cell anemia, and retinitis pigmentosa. Accidents or strokes that damage the retina or affect particular areas of the brain can lead to color blindness. Some medications such as antibiotics, barbiturates, anti-tuberculosis drugs, high blood pressure medications, and several medications used to treat nervous disorders and psychological problems may cause color blindness. Industrial or environmental chemicals such as carbon monoxide, carbon disulfide, fertilizers, styrene, and some containing lead can cause loss of color vision. Occasionally, changes can occur in the affected person's capacity to see colors after age 60.
Signs and symptoms
The inability to correctly identify colors is the only sign of color blindness. It is important to note that people with red/green or blue varieties of color blindness use other cues such as color saturation and object shape or location to distinguish colors. They can often distinguish red or green if they can visually compare the colors. However, most have difficulty accurately identifying colors without any other references. Most people with any impairment in color vision learn colors, as do other young children. These individuals often reach adolescence before their visual deficiency is identified.
There are several tests available to identify problems associated with color vision. The most commonly used is
The Ishihara test is comprised of eight plates that are similar to the American Optical Pseudoisochromatic test plates. The individual being tested looks for numbers among the various colored dots on each test plate. Some plates distinguish between red/green and blue color blindness. Individuals with normal color vision perceive one number. Those with red/green color deficiency see a different number. Those with blue color vision see yet a different number.
A third analytical tool is the Titmus II Vision Tester Color Perception test. The subject looks into a stereoscopic machine. The test stimulus most often used in professional offices contains six different designs or numbers on a black background, framed in a yellow border. Titmus II can test one eye at a time. However, its value is limited because it can only identify red/green deficiencies and is not highly accurate.
Treatment and management
There is no treatment or cure for color blindness. Most color vision deficient persons compensate well for their abnormality and usually rely on color cues and details that are not consciously evident to persons with typical color vision.
Inherited color blindness cannot be prevented. In the case of some types of acquired color deficiency, if the cause of the problem is removed, the condition may improve with time. But for most people with acquired color blindness, the damage is usually permanent.
Color blindness that is inherited is present in both eyes and remains constant over an individual's entire life. Some cases of acquired color vision loss are not severe, may appear in only one eye, and can last for only a short time. Other cases tend to be progressive, becoming worse with time.
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L. Fleming Fallon, Jr., MD, DrPH