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.

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What people who are color blind see depends on exactly what kind of color blindness they have. For example, some people may not be able to distinguish one color from another. Others may confuse two colors—for example, red appears green. 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 (and subtypes) of color blindness to help you better understand why the answer to what color blind people see is so varied. It also talks about how people become color blind and they adapt to make living with their vision difference easier.

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What Is Color Blindness?

The retina in your eye is in charge of detecting color. The retina is made up of two photoreceptor cells known as rods and cones. While rods detect brightness and darkness, cones detect color. There are three types of color cone cells: red, green, and blue. The brain uses input from these cone cells to determine your color perception.

Color blindness occurs when one or more of the color cone cells are absent, not working, or detect a different color than normal. When one or all color cone cells are not present, mild or severe color blindness takes place.

Color blindness also vary by severity. Severe color blindness occurs when all three cone cells are absent. Mild color blindness happens when all three cone cells are present but one cone cell does not work right.

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.

The most severe form of color blindness, in which everything is seen in shades of gray, is uncommon. 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 Do People Become Color Blind?

People are usually born with color blindness, but some can also become color-blind later in life. Color blindness can happen if your eyes or the part of your brain that helps you see color is damaged. This can be caused by:

Color vision may also decline in the aging process, especially with cataracts, cloudy areas on the eye. These cases are called acquired color vision deficiencies.

Types of Color Blindness

There are different types of color blindness, and each type affects the way you see color. Each cone contains a specific pigment (a photopigment called an opsin) that is most sensitive to particular wavelengths of light.

The brain combines input from all three types of cones to produce normal color vision. Mutations in the genes that provide instructions for making the three opsin pigments in cones cause different forms of color blindness.

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.

In this condition, it is very difficult to distinguish between red and green. 

Cones with opsin made from the OPN1LW gene are called long-wavelength-sensitive or L cones, while those with opsin made from the OPN1MW gene are called middle-wavelength-sensitive or M cones and 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 through an absence of L or M cones or to production of abnormal opsin pigments in these cones that affect red-green color vision. 

There are four types of red-green color blindness:

  • Deuteranomaly happens when the M cones of the eye are present but non-functional. It causes green colors to look red.
  • Protanomaly occurs when the L cones of the eye are present but non-functional. It causes red colors to look green.
  • Protanopia occurs when the L cones of the eye are not present. It does not allow you to perceive red light.
  • Deuteranopia happens when M cones of the eye are not present. It does not allow for perception of green light.

Blue-Yellow Color Blindness

The less common type of color blindness is the blue-yellow color blindness, also known as tritan defects. It affects men and women equally. Blue-yellow color blindness affects 1 in 10,000 people worldwide. This condition makes it difficult to tell the difference between the colors 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 differentiate between blue and green, and between yellow and red
  • Tritanopia disables you from telling the difference between blue and green, purple and red, and yellow and pink. It makes colors look less bright too.

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

Blue Cone Monochromacy

This type is uncommon and more severe because you won’t be able to see any shade of color at all. People with this kind of color blindness have additional vision problems such as increased light sensitivity (photophobia), involuntary eye movements (nystagmus), and nearsightedness (myopia).

Blue cone monochromacy is sometimes considered to be a form of achromatopsia, a disorder characterized by a partial or total lack of color vision with other vision problems. Blue monochromacy affects about one in 100,000 people worldwide and occur at a higher rate in males than in females.

What Color Blind People See

What color blind people see differs depending on the type and extent of color blindness. People with red-green color blindness naturally have more color vision than those who have blue-yellow or complete color blindness.

Normal Color Vision vs. Protanopia

Color wheel showing normal vision and protanopia vision
 Irena Kuznetsova / Getty Images

People who have protanopia color blindness are red-blind and see more green than red. They find it hard to tell between red-related colors.

Normal Color Vision vs. Deuteranopia

color wheel showing normal vision and deuteranopia vision
 Irene Kuznetsova / Getty Images

People who have deuteranopia see more of red than green. They have difficulty telling the difference between green-related colors.

Normal Color Vision vs. Blue-Yellow Color Blindness

color wheel showing normal vision and tritanopia vision

 Irene Kuznetsova / Getty Images

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

Normal Color Vision vs. Blue Cone Monochromacy

People who have blue cone monochromacy don't see colors at all—it's complete color blindness. They see everything in black and white.

How to Adjust

Living with color blindness can be hard, especially when performing daily tasks that require you to differentiate colors such as watching the traffic light. 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 become tough, especially when you get to stoplights. Memorizing the position of the lights helps you understand 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.

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

  • 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.

8 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. How humans see in color.

  2. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is color blindness?

  3. National Eye Institute. Causes of color blindness.

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

  5. National Eye Institute. Types of Color Blindness.

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

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

  8. 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.