Colorblindness does not really mean to not see colors at all. Most people with the condition can see some colors correctly but can't pick out others. Most common kind of colorblindness, can't tell the difference between some shades of red and green. Others have a type that makes you confuse certain shades of blue and yellow. So might be more appropriate named “Color deficiency”.
If you're colorblind, that means there's a problem at the level of the cells of your retina, particularly the ones called cone photoreceptor cells. Those cones could be missing, or they might pick up a different color than they should. As a result, they can't send your brain the right information. Since the cones also help you see the fine details of what you're looking at, colorblindness might also make you see a little less sharply.
In most cases, this is a genetic condition, so that means that you inherited the deficiency of your cone cells from your parents, mainly from the mother side. As a result, it's more common in men than women, nearly about 1 in 12 men are colorblind, compared with about 1 in 200 women. However, certain eye diseases like glaucoma, medications toxicity, diabetes… can lead to it.
If you suspect that you or your child may be colorblind, you can go to your optician or eye doctor to check your ability to see colors. The test is called Ishihara color test and it uses images of dots in many colors. If your color vision is within normal limits, you will be able to spot a number between the dots. However, if you are colorblind, you won't be able to.
In children you may not know it until they start to learn the names of colors. Or they may have a hard time in school with exams or homework that use color-coded materials. It's a good idea to test kids' color vision around age 3. If colorblindness runs in your family or have other additional eye problems, be tested by an eye doctor.
Usually, as this is a condition that you were born with, your brain adjusts to it, finding tips and tricks to recognize different colors by their different shades. However, sometimes support is needed, asking someone to help you matching clothes, or may memorize the order of colors in various objects, like traffic lights. So, most times you can perform a normal life. However, nowadays there are Apps for your cellphone or tablet computer can tell you what color something is. Even there are special lenses may let you see colors more clearly, although their effectiveness is widely controversial.
If your colorblindness started because of a disease or is a side effect of prescription medicines, you might be able to do something about it. For example, your doctor might be able to prescribe a different drug. But the main kind of colorblindness, the type you inherit from your parents, can't be corrected.
Researchers are looking for ways to treat the kind of colorblindness you get through your genes by helping the cones work better. Tests on animals have been promising, and tests on people, called clinical trials, are going on now. Talk with your eye doctor if you're interested in taking part in a trial.
Dr. Elisa Carreras Bertran