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How do you get red-green color blindness?

Color blindness, also known as color vision deficiency, is a common condition that affects the ability to perceive colors correctly. Red-green color blindness, where reds, greens, browns, and oranges are difficult to distinguish, is the most prevalent form of color blindness. Here’s an in-depth look at what causes red-green color blindness and how it develops.

What is red-green color blindness?

Red-green color blindness makes it hard to tell the difference between reds, greens, browns, and oranges. These colors often appear muted or dull. Red-green color blindness is also known as protanopia (no working red cones) and deuteranopia (no working green cones). It’s genetic and much more common in men than women.

People with red-green color blindness have trouble distinguishing between colors in the red-green spectrum. Specific colors that are difficult to tell apart include:

  • Red and green
  • Orange and red
  • Yellow and red
  • Green and brown
  • Blue and purple
  • Pink and gray

While the severity can vary, full red-green color blindness results in an inability to see any difference between red, green, brown, and variants like orange. Partial red-green color blindness means these colors are still difficult to tell apart.

What causes red-green color blindness?

Red-green color blindness is genetic and passed down through families. It’s linked to a defect in the genes responsible for the color-detecting cones in the retina at the back of the eye.

People with normal color vision have three types of cones that detect light:

  • Red cones
  • Green cones
  • Blue cones

The brain combines the signals from these cones to allow full color vision. But in red-green color blindness, either the red cones or green cones are missing or not functioning, resulting in an inability to distinguish red and green hues.

Causes in the eyes

The specific genetic mutations that cause red-green color blindness are found on the X chromosomes. The genes involved are:

  • OPN1LW gene – contains instructions for red cones
  • OPN1MW gene – contains instructions for green cones

Mutations in one copy of these genes (people have two copies) lead to reduced numbers of red or green cones. Mutations in both copies result in total absence of either red or green cones.

Causes in the brain

Recent research suggests that in some cases, the cones in the eyes are normal but there are differences in how the brain processes the information from them. This points to possible neurological causes stemming from:

  • Defects in nerve connections between the eye and brain
  • How the brain encodes color information

However, genetic mutations affecting the cones seem to be the primary cause in most people with red-green color blindness.

How does red-green color blindness develop?

Red-green color blindness is hereditary and present from birth. Babies are born with genetic mutations that impair or abolish red or green cone function. But it often goes undiagnosed until children are tested during vision screenings at school.

Age of onset

While present at birth, red-green color blindness may not be noticed until kids are tested at ages 4-6 during pediatric vision exams. Early testing helps detect issues and allow for appropriate interventions in school.

Gender differences

The red and green color detecting genes are located on the X chromosome. Because women have two X chromosomes, mutations in one copy are often compensated for by the other unaffected copy. However, with men only having one X chromosome, mutations readily lead to full red-green color blindness.

Approximate prevalence by gender:

  • Men: 1 in 12 (8%)
  • Women: 1 in 200 (0.5%)


Red-green color blindness does not progressively worsen with age. The degree of color blindness remains stable throughout life. However, normal age-related decline in visual acuity can make distinguishing similar colors more difficult.

Risk factors

Red-green color blindness risk factors include:

  • Gender – Much more common in men than women due to X-linked genes
  • Family history – Having close biological male relatives with red-green color blindness
  • Geographic ancestry – More prevalent in individuals of Caucasian and Asian descent

Is there a cure?

Currently, there is no cure for red-green color blindness. However, some adaptive technologies and strategies can help cope with the lack of color perception.

  • Special tinted glasses or contact lenses that increase contrast between reds/greens
  • Apps that convert images to be more colorblind-friendly
  • Occupational aids like color labeling to distinguish between materials
  • Behavioral training to help recognize different hues

Gene and stem cell therapies to restore functioning red/green cones are also being researched but are not yet viable treatments.


Red-green color blindness is a common genetic condition that makes it hard to distinguish between reds, greens, browns, and oranges. It’s caused by mutations in the OPN1LW and OPN1MW genes that impair or eliminate red and green color detecting cones in the retina. While present from birth, it often goes unnoticed until vision testing in early childhood. Red-green color blindness is much more prevalent in men than women due to its X-chromosome linkage. There is currently no cure, but adaptive aids and technologies can help improve color perception.