Wet age-related macular degeneration (wet AMD) is an eye condition that can cause changes to your vision, including seeing things that aren’t there.

Macular degeneration is a leading cause of progressive vision loss — vision loss that gets worse over time — that involves the macula, the part of your retina responsible for central vision.

There are two types of age-related macular degeneration (AMD): wet AMD and dry AMD. Dry AMD is the most common form of the two, affecting approximately 90% of people with age-related macular degeneration.

Dry AMD occurs when yellow deposits called drusen accumulate beneath the retina. Wet AMD (also known as neovascular AMD or exudative AMD) results when abnormal blood vessels leak blood and fluid into the layers of the macula.

Visual hallucinations can be a symptom in both wet AMD and dry AMD. However, they’re more common when vision becomes severely affected, and wet AMD typically causes more vision loss than dry AMD.

Visual hallucinations are false sensory experiences where your eyes see something that isn’t there.

You might see patterns, colors, people, and faces, for example. These images can be so realistic that you can’t tell when you’re experiencing them.

Hallucinations are often linked to psychological conditions of psychosis, but wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) hallucinations result from physical changes, not mental ones.

Visual hallucinations can occur any time your vision is impaired. Your brain receives information from your eyes, and if your eyes aren’t functioning accurately, the information sent to the brain can be misinterpreted.

Hallucinations can occur when your brain tries to fill in the information gaps.

Experiencing hallucinations due to vision loss, without psychological causes, is known as Charles Bonnet syndrome. It was named after the Swiss philosopher Charles Bonnet, who wrote about the condition in 1760 after witnessing it in his grandfather.

Charles Bonnet syndrome hallucinations are visual perceptions that can include realistic images. Unlike the hallucinations experienced in psychosis, you’re typically aware that Charles Bonnet syndrome hallucinations aren’t real.

While they’re sometimes complex, these hallucinations aren’t often disturbing, though they can be for some people.

Late-stage vision loss may make you more likely to experience visual hallucinations. A 2008 study found that rates of Charles Bonnet syndrome were highest in late-stage AMD.

Wet AMD is considered a late-stage condition due to how quickly and significantly it impairs vision, and it’s sometimes a part of the progression of dry AMD.

According to a 2019 review, the prevalence of Charles Bonnet syndrome among people with age-related macular degeneration is 15.8%. Among those diagnosed with wet AMD, the prevalence is 7.2%.

There’s no hard rule for what you might see when experiencing a visual hallucination.

Wet AMD hallucinations may look like:

  • straight lines taking on a wavy appearance
  • light flashes
  • colors
  • random shapes
  • geometric patterns
  • people
  • faces
  • animals
  • objects
  • landscapes
  • imaginary creatures

Wet AMD hallucinations can be distorted or exceptionally detailed, sometimes more so than if they were real. They can be stationary, or they may be in motion, like watching a parade.

Leaking blood and fluid from abnormal blood vessels underneath the retina distort the macula’s ability to transmit a sharp visual image. Over time, fibrosis and scarring can lead to permanent tissue changes and vision loss.

The macula is responsible for your central vision, color perception, and ability to see detail. It’s made up of photoreceptor cells that signal the brain about what light you’re seeing.

Wet AMD hallucinations result from your brain trying to make sense of limited input from your macula. When it lacks sensory information, the brain creates what seems correct, even if it’s not — a visual hallucination.

Living with wet AMD may increase the chances you’ll experience visual hallucinations, but not everyone living with wet AMD does.

While it’s not clear why some people develop wet AMD hallucinations while others don’t, a 2018 study suggests that differences in neural connectivity may play a role.

People living with Charles Bonnet syndrome were found to have a distinguishable, hyperexcitable neural response to input from their peripheral vision, compared to people living with AMD without hallucinations.

You may have a higher chance of experiencing Charles Bonnet syndrome due to:

  • visual impairment
  • isolation
  • advanced age
  • dark environments

There’s no definitive test for wet AMD hallucinations.

During an initial evaluation, your doctor or retinal specialist (ophthalmologist) will discuss your medical history, medications, and current mental health.

You’ll describe what you’re seeing, how often it occurs, and any circumstances surrounding each experience.

Once other conditions, including mental health conditions, have been ruled out and AMD is confirmed, the description of your hallucination experiences will help determine the presence of Charles Bonnet syndrome.

There’s no cure for Charles Bonnet syndrome, but medications and management strategies can help.

For mild symptoms, your doctor might focus on reassurance rather than any medically based treatment.

Medications or therapies to help control hallucinations might be used if your symptoms are severe. Though more evidence is needed, case reports suggest certain medications and procedures may help, including:

  • anticonvulsants
  • antidepressants
  • atypical neuroleptics
  • 5HT antagonists
  • repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation

Treating wet AMD may also help. Common treatments include:

  • eye drops
  • injections
  • laser treatment
  • submacular surgery
  • gene therapy
  • radiation treatment

To help manage wet AMD hallucinations when they occur, you can:

  • shut your eyes
  • look away from the image
  • alternate your gaze to the left and right several times without turning your head
  • adjust the lighting in the room (not too dark, not too bright)
  • start engaging in a physical activity
  • practice stress reduction/relaxation techniques

Charles Bonnet syndrome in chronic ocular conditions such as AMD tends to occur at least 1 year after vision loss becomes severe.

It’s never too soon to discuss vision concerns with your doctor. Speaking with your doctor or retinal specialist as soon as you notice vision changes can help determine if what you’re experiencing is AMD or another condition.

Wet AMD hallucinations are a form of Charles Bonnet syndrome, a condition in which visual hallucinations are present without any psychological cause.

Not everyone will develop macular degeneration as they age, and even if you do, the chances of experiencing wet AMD hallucinations are low.

Speaking with your doctor or retinal specialist (ophthalmologist) as soon as you notice vision changes may improve your overall outcome. While Charles Bonnet syndrome can’t be cured, treatment is available.

If you’re an older adult who is in need of eye care, EyeCare America offers free comprehensive exams and up to a year of care for those over the age of 65.