Did you know that no two people on Earth have the same color eyes? Whether your peepers are brown, blue, green or some other hue, that shade is one-of-a-kind and absolutely unique to you.
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And if that color suddenly changes, it’s worth a visit to an eye doctor. Ophthalmologist Nicole Bajic, MD, explains why.
Reasons your eye color might change
Eye color rarely shifts after your first few years of life. (More on that childhood process in a bit.) A change in eye color as an adult “can absolutely signify something nefarious going on,” warns Dr. Bajic.
Reasons could include:
Changes to your iris
Your iris (the colored part of your eye) may change through a virus or disease process, leading to a slightly different hue to your eyes. The color may lighten due to a loss of pigmentation in your iris or atrophy when the muscle in your iris grows thinner.
Causes could include:
- Pigment dispersion syndrome. This condition results in pigment releasing from your iris, which causes atrophy of it and can lead to blurred vision and glaucoma. (On a related note, medication for glaucoma also may lead to eye color changes.)
- Pseudoexfoliation syndrome. This disease can cause a white, flaky material to build up on your iris, lens and other structures in your eye. The age-related condition can clog your eye’s drainage system and increase your risk of glaucoma.
Everything you see filters through a lens located behind your iris. This clear disc focuses light onto the retina in the back of your eye, allowing your brain to process what’s in your line of vision.
But as you age, that clear lens within your eye can turn yellow and cloudy, says Dr. Bajic. This fogginess of the lens is known as developing a cataract, which can blur or impair your vision.
Although it doesn’t affect your iris at all, a dense, white cataract showing through your pupil may give the appearance that your eye color looks different.
Cataracts are common. In fact, more than half of the 80+ population has dealt with cloudy lenses. Mild cataracts often can be addressed with a stronger prescription for glasses. More serious cases can be corrected through surgery.
A blue, white or gray arc or ring may appear around your iris as you get older, too. The condition is known as arcus senilis. It occurs when lipid (fatty) deposits accumulate around the outer edges of your cornea, or the outermost layer of your eye.
“It can be quite prominent, to the point where some people think their eyes are turning blue,” notes Dr. Bajic.
The good news? Arcus senilis typically “is not anything dangerous” and should not affect your vision, she reassures.
One word of caution, though: If these rings appear around your iris when you’re younger than 40 or in only one eye, it could be a sign of an underlying condition such as carotid artery disease. “So, it’s always good to come in and get your eyes looked at,” advises Dr. Bajic.
Getting struck in the eye can leave it with a noticeably different look.
A hyphema, or bleeding inside your eye, may cause your eye to darken as blood pools behind the cornea and iris. “When it’s a severe case and the entire front part of the eye fills with blood, we call it an ‘eight-ball hyphema’ because the color of your eye can start to look black,” explains Dr. Bajic.
See a healthcare provider immediately if you notice what looks like bleeding in your eye after something strikes your eye. Most people recover within a few days, but severe untreated hyphema could cause blindness in the affected eye.
Disease, infection, swelling or injury can scar or discolor your cornea, creating a “foggy” layer over your iris that can make your eye color look much lighter.
“I’ve had people come in because they think their eye is turning white,” says Dr. Bajic. “What you’re actually seeing is a foggy cornea that’s blocking your view of the iris and your regular eye color.”
Treatment can help minimize long-term eye problems from a corneal issue.
Some inflammatory conditions in the eye can lead to color changes. These include:
- Uveitis. The most obvious sign of uveitis involves the white part of your eye turning red accompanied by light sensitivity. But the condition also can lead to changes in your pupil’s size or shape, which can make your iris appear different. Uveitis can cause vision loss if not treated.
- Fuchs heterochromic iridocyclitis (FHI). Symptoms of FHI include a loss of pigment in your iris, leading to a change in color in the affected eye. The condition may lead to glaucoma and optic nerve damage.
Optical illusions and eye color
Your eye color looking different one day may have nothing to do with your health and everything to do with your outfit — especially if you have light-colored eyes.
“If you’re wearing a certain tone color in your shirt, it may bring out more of the blue or green in your eyes and make the color seem different,” explains Dr. Bajic. “But your eyes aren’t actually changing, of course. It’s just an optical illusion.”
Makeup and environmental factors (such as lighting) could have a similar effect. “You’ll just see different tones brought out in certain situations,” she adds.
Early eye color changes
A change in eye color certainly merits attention and a visit to the eye doctor during adulthood. But when you’re an infant, a switcheroo of your eye hue is just part of growing up.
“Most babies are born with a grayish or blueish tinge to their eyes,” says Dr. Bajic. “As they get older, you’ll notice a change in eye color — probably between when they’re 3 and 9 months old.”
It can take up to three years for a child’s eye color to settle on a shade. Roughly half of the U.S. population ends up with eyes some shade of brown. Blue is the second-most common eye. Green would be the rarest.
Genetics and your body’s production of melanin, a naturally occurring pigment, determines your eye color. Higher melanin output leads to darker eyes.
Forced eye-color changes
It’s best to avoid surgical procedures to change the color of your eyes for cosmetic reasons, states Dr. Bajic. “If you look on the internet, you’ll see some wild things you can do — none of which are ophthalmologist recommended in the United States,” she says.
- Iris implants. A prosthetic iris surgically inserted in your eye can change your peepers to any color. But the implant brings a significant risk of glaucoma and infection — which can lead to blindness.
- Laser surgery. Eye color can be lightened with a laser treatment that releases pigment from your iris. The problem? Shedding that pigment can clog drains inside your eye, increasing pressure and causing vision loss.
“There’s a reason why these sorts of procedures haven’t been approved in the United States,” says Dr. Bajic. “They’re not worth the risk.”
Your safest option for different-colored eyes? “Try colored contacts,” she suggests.
Bottom line? Don’t expect to wake up one morning to find drastically different eyes looking back at you in the mirror. The color you see today should be the color you see tomorrow and every day after.
If that changes … well, it’s best to talk to an eye doctor to learn why.
To hear more on this topic from Dr. Bajic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “Can Your Eyes Change Color?” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.