Kaleidoscope-like Visual Aura — Is It Serious?

Medically Reviewed By Jenna Stoddard, OD
Was this helpful?
2

Some auras cause distortions in your vision. You may see things mixed up, splintered, and colorful, similar to the view through a kaleidoscope. A visual aura may happen with migraine. The aura is short, lasting 5–60 minutes with a clear start and finish. Aura-like vision symptoms can occur with more serious conditions such as stroke. For this reason, it is important to get a professional medical evaluation. A physician can determine if “kaleidoscope vision” is a visual aura or something else. A sudden and brief change in vision or a change lasting longer than 60 minutes suggests something other than visual aura.

Diagnosis and medical management of visual aura may help reduce the frequency of episodes.

This article explains kaleidoscope vision in the context of visual aura and explores other possible causes. It also discusses symptoms that may accompany visual aura and when to contact a doctor.

Visual aura and kaleidoscope vision explained

kaleidoscope flamingoes
Juan Moyano/Stocksy United

Many people with migraine experience aura. Visual aura is the most common type. A visual aura may appear as:

  • flashes of light
  • zig zags
  • spots
  • distortions
  • loss of vision

With distortions, what you see may appear broken into pieces, shiny, and very colorful, not unlike looking through a kaleidoscope. Sometimes sold as a toy, a kaleidoscope contains bits of colored materials inside it. As you look through the eyepiece, mirrors inside reflect the materials in an infinite array of patterns.

Visual auras last 5–60 minutes, according to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF).

In one eye vs. both eyes

A visual aura can involve one or both eyes.

Migraine or other neurological conditions can cause aura in both eyes. Vision distortion in one eye usually means the problem is in the eye itself.

Retinal migraine affects vision in one eye. However, this is usually partial or total loss of vision rather than visual distortion.

When eyes are closed

You can experience visual aura with your eyes closed. You can also see flashes of light and floaters with your eyes closed. Flashes of light and spots may be visual aura but can also indicate problems with the eye itself.

Contact an eye care specialist for any changes in vision.

Symptoms that occur with vision distortions may help you and your doctor pinpoint the cause. Visual aura can occur before the headache pain of migraine, but aura can also occur alone.

When to contact a doctor

See an ophthalmologist or your primary care physician for:

  • new dark spots or floaters in one eye
  • new flashes of light in one eye that persist more than 1 hour
  • transient loss of vision in one eye

Contact your doctor if you are being treated for migraine and experience new symptoms, including vision anomalies.

Sometimes visual distortions occur with stroke. Symptoms occur suddenly. Seek immediate medical care — call 911 — for these symptoms:

What causes visual aura?

Following is a discussion of different causes of kaleidoscope-like and other visual aura.

Migraine

About 25% of people with migraine experience visual aura, which can include kaleidoscope-like vision. Migraine subtypes include migraine with aura and retinal migraine. Migraine with aura affects vision in both eyes. Retinal migraine occurs in one eye.

Aura may occur as a precursor to migraine, with pain setting in as vision starts to clear.

Other symptoms could include:

Stroke or TIA

A sudden change in vision is a potential symptom of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA is a ministroke. Visual symptoms of these conditions are usually vision loss rather than vision distortion, however.

A stroke lasts longer than a TIA and can result in permanent damage to parts of the brain.

Other TIA and stroke symptoms, which are typically sudden, can include:

  • lightheadedness, dizziness
  • extremely painful headache, especially with no prior history of headaches or migraine
  • arm weakness or numbness, especially on one side of the body
  • difficulty speaking or slurred speech
  • confusion
  • face drooping or numbness, especially on one side

Psychological conditions

Conversion disorder is a possible cause of visual aura. Clinicians categorize these as psychosomatic visual disturbances. However, the symptom is typically vision loss, tunnel vision, or double vision rather than kaleidoscope vision. Psychological distress can bring on conversion disorder.

Additionally, there are anecdotal claims that kaleidoscope vision may occur with anxiety disorders.

Hallucinogens

Hallucinogenic drugs are known to affect your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. These drugs can cause you to hear, see, and feel things that are not present. Hallucinogenic drugs include LSD, PCP, and psilocybin, from Psilocybe mushrooms.

A 2018 study finds that psilocybin has significant and diverse visual effects, including kaleidoscope images. Interestingly, the study compares psilocybin to dextromethorphan, a common cough suppressant. Dextromethorphan can be hallucinogenic at high doses, or more than 10 times the dose for cough.

Are there tests for diagnosing visual aura?

A comprehensive eye exam and neurological tests can indicate the cause of the visual distortion. Your doctor will:

  • evaluate your symptoms
  • ask you to share your medical and medication history
  • ask you to draw what you see
  • test your vision one eye at a time and with both eyes
  • examine your eyes, including the retina
  • assess your neurological function

A visual aura typically lasts less than 1 hour and has a clear start and finish. Migraine headache may or may not follow it. A sudden change in vision that lasts longer than 1 hour suggests it is not an aura.

Depending on your symptoms and circumstances, your doctor may order imaging exams, such as a brain MRI.

You may need to see an ophthalmologist as well as a neurologist. An ophthalmologist is a doctor who specializes in the eye. A neurologist is a doctor who specializes in the nervous system. Some neurologists specialize in migraine.

What is the treatment for visual auras?

If your kaleidoscope-like vision is associated with migraine, your doctor may recommend preventive medications. In addition, your doctor may suggest behavioral therapy. These and other strategies can help minimize the frequency of migraine auras.

Talk with your healthcare professional about a treatment plan that is specific to your situation.

What is the outlook?

Visual auras are not serious and resolve in less than 60 minutes. However, the cause of a vision disturbance like kaleidoscope vision can be serious.

Additionally, people who experience migraine with aura have a greater likelihood of stroke, according to the AMF.

Promptly seek medical care for any change in your vision. For such causes as stroke, the sooner you get treatment, the better the outlook.

Other frequently asked questions

Below are questions people also ask about kaleidoscope-like vision.

Can you have kaleidoscope vision without migraine?

Yes. A visual aura sometimes, but not always, precedes headache pain from migraine.

Should I worry about kaleidoscope vision?

Kaleidoscope-like vision itself is not serious and will not hurt your eyes. It is usually a visual aura that some people with migraine experience. However, you should contact an eye doctor if you experience visual aura. Other neurological conditions, such as stroke or TIA, can cause visual aura.

Can stress cause kaleidoscope vision?

A significant stressor has the potential to cause a visual disturbance. However, psychological conditions, such as conversion disorder, are more likely to cause loss of vision or double vision rather than fractured, or kaleidoscope vision.

Summary

People experiencing a visual aura may describe their vision as if looking through a kaleidoscope. Vision appears broken, fractured, shiny, or very colorful. A visual aura is not serious and typically goes away quickly. However, a visual aura is a common symptom of migraine and may occur frequently.

Visual aura can also occur with other conditions. If you experience kaleidoscope-like vision, see an eye doctor for a full vision and physical exam. 

With an accurate diagnosis, you can create an effective treatment plan. If you have migraine, medication can help prevent visual aura episodes or reduce their frequency.

Was this helpful?
2
Medical Reviewer: Jenna Stoddard, OD
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 28
View All Eye Health Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Boyd, K. (2021). What are floaters and flashes? https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-are-floaters-flashes
  2. Carbonaro, T. M., et al. (2017). Double-blind comparison of the two hallucinogens psilocybin and dextromethorphan: Similarities and differences in subjective experiences. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6645364/
  3. Demystifying migraine with aura. (2021). https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/demystifying-migraine-with-aura/
  4. Friedman, D. (2016). Visual disturbances: Related to migraine or not? https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/visual-disturbances-migraine/
  5. Ha, H., et al. (2019). Migraine headache prophylaxis. https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2019/0101/p17.html
  6. Hallucinogens DrugFacts. (2021). https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/hallucinogens#
  7. Khalili, Y. A., et al. (2022). Retinal migraine headache. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507725/
  8. Kikkeri, N. S., et al. (2022). Migraine with Aura. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554611/
  9. Lee, A. G., et al. (2022). Conversion disorder in neuro-ophthalmology. https://eyewiki.aao.org/Conversion_Disorder_in_Neuro-Ophthalmology
  10. Stroke. (2022). https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/stroke
  11. Types of Aura. (n.d.). https://americanheadachesociety.org/news/types-of-aura/
  12. Understanding ocular migraine. (2017). https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/understanding-ocular-migraine/
  13. Weatherall, M. W. (2015). The diagnosis and treatment of chronic migraine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4416971/