Created for Greatist by the experts at Healthline. Read more

When your vision becomes scrambled, fractured, or vividly colorful, you’re experiencing kaleidoscope vision. This can be alarming, especially if you don’t recall taking the “brown acid.”

Kaleidoscope vision is generally the result of a visual disturbance called a migraine aura, which is caused by an electrical flare in the occipital lobe of the brain — the area responsible for processing images. Visual auras can also disturb other senses such as touch, smell, or hearing.

The aura itself is not a condition, but a symptom of another condition — usually a migraine, but there are other, more serious possibilities to rule out as well.

Visual auras may be accompanied by a headache and may not affect both eyes equally. They can affect all or just part of your field of vision, and they generally last no more than an hour; most often they last between 10 to 30 minutes.

Kaleidoscopes are neat toys, but fractured vision without the help of one is no bueno. Read on for more info about the possible causes of kaleidoscope vision and their treatments.

Don’t get the wrong idea — having kaleidoscope vision doesn’t necessarily resemble looking through an actual kaleidoscope, nor is it the only type of visual distortion associated with a visual migraine aura.

There are three types of visual auras, and each can have different effects. Types of visual auras and their symptoms include:

  • Positive visual auras. These add objects to your vision. Symptoms include:
    • seeing stars, dots, squiggly lines, or flashes resembling the afterimage of a flash of light
    • shimmering zigzag lines which may move or grow
    • visual hallucinations
  • Negative visual auras. These are characterized by partial or total loss of vision. Symptoms include:
    • blind spots or partial loss of vision (aka scotoma)
    • loss of peripheral vision (aka tunnel vision)
    • brief total vision loss
  • Altered visual auras. These distort the way you see objects without adding or removing anything from your vision. Symptoms include:
    • kaleidoscope vision
    • blurred or wavy vision
    • color distortion or lack of color vision
    • distorted size of objects (they appear larger or smaller than actual)
    • distorted distance of objects (they appear closer or further than actual)

A visual aura may affect one or both eyes and may be accompanied or followed by a headache. While less common, it may also be accompanied or followed by another type of aura, if your other senses feel like getting in on the fun. Other possible auras include:

  • Sensory aura. These begin with a tingling sensation or numbness in one hand that moves up along the arm, perhaps reaching the face within 20 minutes.
  • Dysphasic aura. These cause difficulty with language or speech.
  • Hemiplegic migraine. These cause the arm and leg on one side of the body, and potentially the face, to feel weak. Of all auras, these are the rarest.

So, what on earth can cause kaleidoscope vision? In addition to migraine, there are a few other conditions that could be to blame.

Ocular migraine

The most common of all causes of kaleidoscope vision, this type of migraine is characterized by any number of other possible visual disruptions.

There are two kinds of ocular migraine to consider which have similar symptoms but present different levels of danger: migraine with aura, and retinal migraine. Let’s first discuss what they have in common before pointing out some key differences.

Common traits of ocular migraine

Those affected by ocular migraines commonly experience different symptoms with each episode, and fewer than 20 percent of people who have them experience visual aura symptoms each time they have a migraine.

Symptoms of ocular migraines include positive, negative, and altered visual auras, and may also include sensory or dysphasic auras — all of which are described under the Symptoms heading found above. These may be accompanied or followed by other migraine symptoms such as:

  • headache
  • mental fog
  • nausea with or without vomiting
  • insomnia
  • light sensitivity

The visual symptoms can be blamed on rogue electrical activity in the occipital lobe that spreads very slowly — just a few millimeters per minute — and interferes with visual processing.

NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or aspirin may relieve pain, and anti-nausea medications like promethazine may ease discomfort during an ocular migraine — you can buy both over the counter.

Treatments used to prevent migraines include:

  • calcium channel blockers or beta blockers
  • anti-epileptics
  • tricyclic medicines
  • avoiding triggers such as:
    • bright, flashing lights
    • stress
    • dehydration
    • long screen sessions

And here’s how the types of ocular migraines differ…

Migraine with aura

Migraine with aura has the milder symptoms of the two types, more commonly including positive visual aura symptoms like seeing stars, squiggles, etc.

Visual symptoms are short-lived, usually lasting less than an hour, and they’ll always subside. This type of migraine may occur with or without a headache. It may be unpleasant, but just hang on — it’ll be over soon!

Retinal migraine

Retinal migraine has more disruptive visual symptoms and is the more potentially-dangerous type of ocular migraine.

Visual symptoms impact just one eye and are more disruptive, commonly including negative visual aura symptoms like partial loss of vision (scotoma) and temporary blindness.

Headaches normally accompany or follow the visual symptoms within an hour.

FYI

Retinal migraine poses a (rare) danger of permanent vision loss, so you should get checked by a doctor if you suspect you may be affected.

MS and migraine

There’s evidence that migraines can be a precursor to the onset of multiple sclerosis (MS). One study conducted on 50 people who were newly diagnosed with MS found that 78 percent of participants had experienced headaches — especially migraines — within a month of the study, leading the authors to conclude that migraines are “a frequent symptom within the scope of the first manifestation of multiple sclerosis.”

Migraines are rather common though, affecting about 40 million people in America. MS, an autoimmune disorder affecting the central nervous system, is less common — affecting about 400,000 Americans. Therefore it’s possibly a coincidence that some peeps with MS also experience migraines.

So while migraines are not usually a sign of the onset of MS, it’s a good idea to see a doctor if you’re also experiencing any of these other early symptoms of MS:

  • dizziness/loss of equilibrium
  • numbness or weakness in an arm or leg that doesn’t go away on its own
  • facial paralysis
  • loss of vision in one eye with pain

TIA or stroke

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted due to blood clotting or a severely-narrowed artery (ischemic stroke), or when bleeding occurs in and around the brain (hemorrhagic stroke).

The underlying cause of an ischemic stroke is similar to that of a heart attack, so you can think of it as a “brain attack.” Brain tissue can die as a result of a stroke, due to lack of oxygen from blood circulation, which can be permanently disabling or even fatal.

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a brief stroke that leaves no lasting damage (they’re often referred to as “mini-strokes”).

This doesn’t mean you’re in the clear though; a TIA will often lead to a stroke. Within a year of having a TIA, a third of people will have a full-on stroke, and as many as a quarter will die.

From lack of blood flow to the brain, a person having a stroke may experience symptoms similar to an ocular migraine. This can include — you guessed it — kaleidoscope vision. As time is of the essence when a stroke is happening, it’s important to recognize the telltale signs.

Important:

The American Stroke Association advises us to think F.A.S.T. to recognize the warning signs of a stroke and to get help:

  • F – Face drooping or numbness. Ask: can you smile evenly?
  • A – Arm weakness. Ask: can you raise both arms and keep them raised?
  • S – Speech difficulty. Ask: can you recite a simple sentence?
  • T – Time to call 911. If someone has difficulty with any of the above, call 911 and seek immediate treatment — even if the symptoms have subsided.

Additionally, a stroke may cause difficulty walking or seeing, a severe and abrupt headache, numbness, and confusion.

Some risk factors of a stroke are treatable, so it’s a good idea to address any of the following conditions or lifestyle choices sooner rather than later. They include:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • obesity
  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • lack of exercise

Hallucinogens

Okay, this one might be obvious if you intentionally took a hallucinogenic drug recently. Or maybe you didn’t take that lyric about the girl with kaleidoscope eyes in “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” literally enough. But yes, certain drugs can produce visual hallucinations, including lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin (as is found in magic mushrooms).

While an ocular migraine will ruin your dinner plans, it’s usually not a lasting threat to your health. But if your kaleidoscope vision is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, it’s possible that there’s something more significant going on, and you should be off to the doctor, pronto.

  • dizziness/loss of equilibrium
  • numbness or weakness in an arm or leg that doesn’t go away on its own
  • facial paralysis
  • loss of vision in one eye, with pain
  • facial drooping or numbness
  • speech difficulty
  • partial loss of vision, temporary blindness, dark spots, or floaters in one eye
  • abrupt change in migraine frequency, duration, or intensity
  • any of the ocular migraine symptoms mentioned earlier that last more than an hour

Unfortunately there is no cure for migraine; like going to a superhero movie with your fanboy partner, you just have to deal with it as best you can, reminding yourself all the while that it’ll be over soon.

In most cases, your visual aura symptoms will clear up quicker than it typically takes to witness The Avengers save the world yet again.

In the meantime, it can help to lay down in a dark, silent room. Some people find that a scalp massage or wet cloth applied to the forehead can also help with symptoms.

Certain medications can help to treat migraine symptoms, including:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers: such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
  • Anti-nausea medications: like prochlorperazine or metoclopramide.
  • Dihydroergotamine: a prescription medication meant to be taken as soon as possible after migraine symptoms start.

There are also some medications that doctors prescribe off-label (i.e. for uses other than their intended purpose) that can help prevent migraines. These include:

  • Calcium channel blockers: intended to lower blood pressure, but can also help prevent migraines with aura. One example is verapamil.
  • Beta-blockers: like timolol and propranolol are also intended to lower blood pressure, but are known to help prevent migraines.
  • Botox: regular botox injections can prevent migraines while erasing crow’s feet — a win-win!
  • Anti-seizure medication: prescribed in some cases to reduce migraine frequency. Examples include topiramate and valproate.
  • Antidepressants: certain antidepressant medications are sometimes prescribed to prevent migraine.

The right treatment for kaleidoscope vision depends on its cause. Most of the time it’s due to migraine with aura, but there other possible causes that should be ruled out if symptoms beyond those of migraine are present.

The good news is that if your kaleidoscope vision is caused by migraine, it’s generally short-lived.