What Do Color Blind People See?

Understanding Color Blindness

Graphic shows the "normal" vision spectrum compared to the spectrum seen with different types of color blindness.

petrroudny / Getty Images

Color-blind people see differently depending on what kind of color blindness they have. For example, some people may not be able to tell one color from another. Colors can also appear muted. In rarer cases, someone who is color blind may not see color at all.

This article covers the various types of color blindness to help you better understand what color-blind people see and why it can vary. It also talks about how color-blind people can adapt to make living with their vision difference easier.

Man takes photo with phone on rock empire
Roman Donar / Getty Images

How Color Blind People See Color

Color blindness doesn't always mean a person only sees in shades of gray. This type of color blindness is considered the most severe, but it's uncommon. Most people with color blindness simply see a narrower range of color than someone with full-color vision.

People with color blindness may confuse certain colors. For example, the color red may look the same as the color green. Some people with mild color vision deficiency can see colors normally in good light, but have difficulty in dim light. Others cannot distinguish certain colors in any light.

Color blindness usually affects both eyes equally and remains stable throughout life.

A significant change in color vision may indicate a more serious condition and should be seen by a physician.

How the Types of Color Blindness Affect Vision

There are several different types of color blindness. Each type of color blindness affects the way a person sees color in a different way.  People with red-green color blindness, for example, have more color vision than those who have blue-yellow or complete color blindness.

Red-green and blue-yellow color blindness disrupts color perception, but does not affect visual acuity.

Red-Green Color Blindness

The most common type of color blindness is red-green color blindness. It occurs in about one in 12 males and one in 200 females among people of Northern European ancestry. With this condition, it is very difficult to tell the difference between red and green. 

There are four types of red-green color blindness:

  • Deuteranomaly causes green colors to look red.
  • Protanomaly causes red colors to look green.
  • Protanopia is when you cannot see red light. People who have protanopia color blindness are red-blind and see more green than red. They find it hard to tell the difference between red-related colors.
Color wheel showing normal vision and protanopia vision
 Irena Kuznetsova / Getty Images
  • Deuteranopia is when you cannot see green light. People who have deuteranopia see more red than green. They have difficulty telling the difference between green-related colors.
color wheel showing normal vision and deuteranopia vision
 Irene Kuznetsova / Getty Images

Blue-Yellow Color Blindness

The less common type of color blindness is blue-yellow color blindness. This type is also known as tritan defects.

Blue-yellow color blindness affects 1 in 10,000 people worldwide. It also affects men and women equally. This condition makes it difficult to tell the difference between blue and green, yellow and red, and dark blue and black.

There are two types of blue-yellow color blindness:

  • Tritanomaly makes it difficult to tell the difference between blue and green, and between yellow and red.
  • Tritanopia prevents you from telling the difference between blue and green, purple and red, and yellow and pink. It makes colors look less bright too.

People who have tritanopia color blindness are blue-blind. They have difficulty telling the difference between blue-related colors.

color wheel showing normal vision and tritanopia vision

 Irene Kuznetsova / Getty Images

Blue Cone Monochromacy

Blue monochromacy is uncommon. It affects about one in 100,000 people worldwide and occurs at a higher rate in males than in females.

Blue cone monochromacy is considered a more severe type of color blindness. People with this kind of color blindness can't see any color at all. Instead, they see things in shades of gray. They also have additional vision problems such as:

Blue cone monochromacy is sometimes considered a form of achromatopsia. Achromatopsia is characterized by a partial or total lack of color vision with other vision problems.

What Causes Color Blindness?

The retina contains three types of color cone cells: red, green, and blue. Each cone contains a specific pigment called an opsin. These pigments are most sensitive to particular wavelengths of light. The brain combines input from all three types of cones to produce normal color vision.

When one or all color cone cells are not present, mild or severe color blindness takes place. Mild color blindness happens when all three cone cells are present but one cone cell does not work right. Severe color blindness occurs when all three cone cells are absent.

Mutations in the genes that provide instructions for making the three opsin pigments in cones cause different forms of color blindness.

  • Cones with opsin made from the OPN1LW gene are called long-wavelength-sensitive or L cones.
  • Cones with opsin made from the OPN1MW gene are called middle-wavelength-sensitive or M cones.
  • Cones with opsin made from the OPN1SW gene are called short-wavelength-sensitive or S cones.

Genetic changes involving the OPN1LW or OPN1MW gene cause red-green color blindness in different ways:

  • Deuteranomaly happens when the M cones of the eye are present but non-functional.
  • Protanomaly occurs when the L cones of the eye are present but non-functional.
  • Protanopia occurs when the L cones of the eye are not present.
  • Deuteranopia happens when M cones of the eye are not present.

Blue-yellow color blindness is caused by defects in the OPN1SW gene. People with this type of color blindness either have S cones that are non-functional or S cones that are destroyed before they're supposed to be.

Blue cone monochromacy happens when changes in the OPN1LW and OPN1MW genes cause both the L and M cones to become non-functional.

How to Adjust

Living with color blindness can be hard. People with color blindness have trouble performing daily tasks that require them to tell the difference between colors. Examples of some daily activities that affect color blind people are: 

  • Driving
  • Dressing up
  • Making meals
  • Using gadgets

Nevertheless, it is possible to live normally with color blindness by changing some daily routines, including:

  • Memorizing patterns: Activities like driving can be difficult, especially when you can't see the colors in a stoplight. Memorizing the position of the lights helps you know what to do.
  • Altering the lighting at your home or office: Working in a dark or poorly lit space makes it harder to see with color blindness. Daylight bulbs can brighten your environment.
  • Labeling your clothes: A labeling system, such as writing the color of the garment on the tag, can help you coordinate your outfits. 
  • Using your other four senses: Utilize your senses of smell, touch, taste, and hearing. For example, choose fresh fruits from the grocery store by using touch and smell.
  • Enabling the accessibility button on your devices: Modern gadgets have accessibility options that may help. Also, look for apps designed to help with color blindness.

EnChroma Glasses can help color blind people see some colors. If you have color blindness, talk to your healthcare provider about ways to manage color blindness.

Summary

Color-blind people don't always see in shades of gray. In fact, this form of color blindness is rare. Instead, most people with color blindness see a limited range of colors. They may confuse one color with another.

There are a few different types of color blindness. Red-green color blindness is the most common. People with this type have a hard time telling the difference between red and green. Blue-yellow color blindness is less common. This type makes it hard to distinguish between blue and green, yellow and red, and dark blue and black.

Blue cone monochromacy is a severe type of color blindness. People with this type don't see any color at all. 

A Word From Verywell

Living with color blindness can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. There are many ways to adjust and cope with it. By tweaking your daily routine and using the right tools, you can live normally and prevent color blindness from disrupting your daily life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How Does Someone Become Color Blind?

    People are usually born with color blindness, but color blindness can also happen later in life if your eyes or the part of your brain that helps you see color is damaged. This is called acquired color vision deficiency and can be caused by:

  • Can you be color blind in one eye?

    Yes, it is possible to have a form of color blindness in one eye. Genetic color blindness (color blindness since birth) is unlikely to affect one eye, but it can occur later in life if an optical disorder affects just a single eye.

  • What is the least common type of color blindness?

    Blue cone monochromacy is the least common type of color blindness. Only one in 100,000 people worldwide experience this type. People with blue cone monochromacy see only in black and white colors. Men are more commonly affected by it than women.

  • How do people with color blindness drive?

    Color recognition isn't necessary for safe driving. Road signs are still distinguishable because of shapes, patterns, and symbols. Similarly, traffic lights follow a pattern: red on top, yellow in the middle, and green at the bottom. So a sign or light is recognizable even without color.

  • Can a color blind person see a rainbow?

    They may see it—it just won't appear to have the standard colors. For example, someone with deuteranope color blindness will only see stripes of various yellow and blue tones. People with tritanope color blindness see mainly tones of pink and aqua.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is color blindness?

  2. National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Color vision deficiency.

  3. National Eye Institute. Types of Color Blindness.

  4. American Academy of Ophthalmology. How humans see in color.

  5. National Library of Medicine. Color vision deficiency.

  6. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Do colorblindness glasses actually work?

  7. National Eye Institute. Causes of color blindness.

  8. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Is it possible to be colorblind in one eye only?

  9. West Texas A&M University: Science Questions with Surprising Answers. Why can't color blind people see any colors?

Additional Reading

By Margaret Etudo
Margaret Etudo is a health writing expert with extensive experience in simplifying complex health-based information for the public on topics, like respiratory health, mental health and sexual health.