Kaleidoscope vision is a short-lived distortion causing things to look like you’re peering through a kaleidoscope. In most cases, the cause is migraine with aura. Rarely, it may be a symptom of a serious condition.

With kaleidoscope vision, images appear broken up and can be brightly colored or shiny. It’s most often caused by migraine with aura.

In some cases, kaleidoscope vision can be a symptom of more serious problems, including stroke, retinal damage, and serious brain injury, especially if the symptoms occur in only one eye.

Read on to learn more about kaleidoscope vision, its causes, and its symptoms.

An aura episode may include feelings of numbness or tingling, weakness, and trouble speaking, as well as visual disturbances that affect both eyes. The aura episode may last anywhere from 5 minutes to 1 hour. It’s usually followed by a migraine headache, but not always.

In kaleidoscope vision, the images you see may appear broken up and brightly colored, like the image in a kaleidoscope. The images may move around.

You’ll usually see the distorted image in both eyes. But this can be hard to determine because it may appear only in a part of the visual field. One way to determine if you’re seeing it in both eyes is to cover one and then the other.

If you see the distorted image in each eye separately, the problem is probably coming from the part of your brain involved in vision and not from the eyes themselves. This makes it more likely that the cause is ocular migraine.

Kaleidoscope vision and other aura effects may also be symptoms of more serious conditions, including a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a ministroke. A TIA can be a precursor to a stroke that could be life threatening.

Therefore, it’s important to see an ophthalmologist (a type of eye doctor who can examine, diagnose, and treat eye conditions) if you experience kaleidoscope vision or any other aura effect, especially for the first time.

Other symptoms of migraine with aura

Some of the other symptoms you may experience from migraine with aura include:

  • zigzag lines that often shimmer (they may be colored or black and silver, and they may appear to move across your field of vision)
  • dots, stars, spots, squiggles, and “flashbulb” effects
  • a faint, foggy area surrounded by zigzag lines that can grow and break up over time
  • blind spots, tunnel vision, or total loss of vision for a short period
  • a sensation of looking through water or heat waves
  • loss of color vision
  • objects appearing too large or too small, or too close or far away

Symptoms that can accompany migraine with aura

At the same time as the visual aura episode, or after it, you may also experience other types of aura or migraine episodes. These include:

  • Sensory aura: You’ll experience tingling in your fingers that spread up your arm, sometimes reaching one side of your face and tongue.
  • Dysphasic aura: Your speech is disrupted, and you forget words or can’t say what you mean.
  • Hemiplegic migraine: During a hemiplegic migraine episode, the limbs on one side of your body and the muscles of your face might become weak.

The most common cause of kaleidoscope vision is migraine with aura, which can be ocular or retinal. It’s seen in about 25% of people who have migraine.

Sometimes the terms “ocular” and “retinal” are used in place of one another, but they’re different. You may need to ask a doctor to clarify if you’re told you have one of these conditions.

Ocular migraine

Ocular migraine may also be called visual or ophthalmic migraine. The clinical term for aura associated with ocular migraine is “scintillating scotoma.” Ocular migraine episodes most often occur in both eyes.

This happens when the nerve endings in the back portion of the brain, known as the visual cortex, become activated. The reason for this is unknown. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can show the activation spreading over the visual cortex as the migraine episode proceeds.

The symptoms usually pass within 60 minutes. You don’t necessarily get a migraine headache at the same time. When you experience a visual migraine episode without a headache, it’s called an acephalgic migraine episode.

Retinal migraine

Some specialists may use the terms “visual,” “ocular,” or “ophthalmic aura” to describe retinal migraine.

However, retinal migraine is a more serious condition than visual migraine. It’s caused by a lack of blood flow to the eye.

It usually involves a blind spot or complete vision loss in just one eye. But you may experience some of the same visual distortions as with an aura episode caused by ocular migraine.

Although the terminology may seem confusing, a doctor or other healthcare professional can help you understand which condition you have.

TIA or stroke

A TIA is caused by a decrease in blood flow to the brain. Although the symptoms of a TIA pass quickly, it’s a serious condition. It can signal the onset of a full stroke that may more seriously affect your abilities.

Sometimes a TIA can produce symptoms similar to a visual migraine episode, including kaleidoscope vision. So, if you think you’re experiencing a visual migraine episode, it’s important to talk with a healthcare professional to confirm it’s not a TIA.

One of the differences is that in migraine, the symptoms usually occur in sequence. You may have visual symptoms first, followed by effects on the body or other senses. In a TIA, all the symptoms usually happen at once.

MS and migraine

Migraine is more common in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). A 2021 review of several studies notes that 55% of people living with MS also experience migraine. The prevalence of migraine with aura specifically is only 10%.

However, the causal connection between migraine and MS isn’t fully understood. Migraine may be a signal that MS will develop, or they may share a common cause.

If you’re living with MS and experience kaleidoscope vision, it’s possible that it’s the result of a visual migraine episode. But don’t rule out the other possibilities of a TIA or retinal migraine episode.


Kaleidoscope vision, as well as some of the other visual distortions known to occur in migraine with aura, can be produced by hallucinogenic agents.

For example, LSD and MDMA (also known as molly or ecstasy) can cause you to see bright but unstable colored images prone to sudden kaleidoscopic changes.

Here are some of the symptoms that may indicate your kaleidoscopic vision is caused by something more serious than migraine with aura:

  • the appearance of new dark spots or floaters in one eye, possibly accompanied by flashes of light and loss of vision
  • new flashes of light in one eye that last longer than an hour
  • repeated episodes of temporary vision loss in one eye
  • tunnel vision or loss of vision on one side of the visual field
  • sudden change in the duration or intensity of migraine symptoms

If you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to see an ophthalmologist right away.

Kaleidoscope vision is most often a result of a visual migraine. The symptoms will usually pass in less than 60 minutes, and you may experience no headache pain at all.

But it can signify something more serious, including a major eye condition that can threaten your vision, an upcoming stroke, or a brain injury.

It’s important to see an ophthalmologist if you experience kaleidoscope vision.

Read this article in Spanish.