Visual Aura: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Visual aura refers to changes in one’s field of vision such as squiggly lines, shimmering spots or lines, zigzag or flashing lines, even stars or irregular wavy scintillating lines or¬†flickering lights. Visual aura is basically a benign neurological condition that generates simple to complex optical effects. While it may occur on its own, it is known to precede or accompany a migraine. The¬†optical effects it generates¬†usually¬†last up to about 20 minutes.

Visual aura is a benign distortion of one’s visual field. It is¬†different from eye floaters and both have distinct causes. Visual aura may or may not reoccur and this depends greatly on what caused it in the first place. For someone who has never experienced such a disturbance in vision, an aura can prove extremely worrisome, especially if it is a more complex optical effect. However, even the most simple of visual disturbances can interfere with driving which is why it is recommended to avoid performing complex tasks until the optical effects of a visual aura withdraw.

Flicker in eyes

Here is a list of simple and complex optical effects that can be classified as visual aura:
1) Bright flashing or flickering lights.
2) Shimmering dots, spots or patches.
3) Zigzag, curved, wavy or squiggly lines that flicker or shimmer.
4) Shimmering or dark spots that develop gradually and spread.
5) Whitish or shimmering stars.
6) Blind spots or patches that spread¬†across one’s field of vision.
7) Expansion of one’s blind spot.
8) Deformed perception of the size of objects in one’s field of vision.
9) Tunnel vision as a result of loss of peripheral vision.
10) Photosensitivity.
11) Temporary blindness in either one or both eyes.
12) Kaleidoscope vision.

Scintillating scotoma is a particular type of visual aura. It appears as spots or patches of shimmering or flickering light in an area of one’s field of vision called scotoma (or blind spot) which then expand¬†towards the center. Lines, arcs or flickering lights, either white or colored may occur. Scotoma is a type of visual aura that refers to actual blind spots or dark pathches that start in the scotoma area and slowly spread towards the center of the eye. This type may come to obscure vision in one eye almost completely.

All of these unusual visual symptoms may appear in combination with smell, hearing or other types of neurological distortions such as experiencing strange, unknown smells or tastes, nausea, sudden anxiety, tingling and numbness sensation, confusion, weakness or slurred speech. While seizures are rare occurrences, migraines are very likely to occur. Usually, visual auras accompany migraines in the majority of cases.

Visual aura

When I first experienced a visual aura I was¬†extremely panicked because I thought I was going blind. It was a couple of years back and I was driving into town at noon on a beautiful summer day. 5 minutes into the drive, I felt my left eye very teary and I assumed it was because of the bright light. Almost instantly I started seeing several shimmering, whitish lines which appeared to move across my field of vision. While they disappeared in about 20 minutes, I couldn’t see well and had to pull the car over.

In my case, the visual aura shimmering lines were caused by lack of sleep (I had only slept two hours the night before) and a serious migraine brought on by putting up some shelves on the wall early in the morning. I heard the noise from the hammer throbbing in my ears for hours afterwards and deduced it was the cause behind the visual distortions I was experiencing.

Visual aurae can have a variety of causes or can be a side effect of another medical problem or condition such as migraines. If you experience both migraines and visual aura, then what is causing your migraines is also causing the visual aurae.

Causes and triggers

Here is a list of potential triggers of visual aura:
1) Stress and sleep deprivation.
2) The strain caused by lifting heavy weights or intense exercising.
3) Nutrient deficiencies (magnesium deficit is a possible cause).
4) Loud, repetitive noises (such as a hammer noises).
5) Irritants such as dust or irritant chemical substances (from cleaning products).
6) Pollen or other allergens.
7) Certain foods one is intolerant of.
8) Psychological conditions (depression, anxiety).
9) Anomalies in the occipital cortex (the back part of the brain responsible for vision).
10) Other medical conditions: synesthesia, hallucinations, seizures, epilepsy, migraines, local inflammation, rarely retinal tear, ischemia, myopia, uveitis etc.
11) Sudden movements of the eye.
12) Aging (visual auras are more likely to occur in individuals over 40).
13) Alcohol, coffee and caffeinated beverages.
14) Food additives such as nitrates, monosodium glutamate or tyramine may play a role.

Flickers and shimmering in one’s field of vision may have to do with problems with the retinal photoreceptors which are specialized cells in the retina. These retina cells convert light into signals that help us understand the visual world. But with time, the vitreous humour (the gel-like substance in between the retina and the lens) may either liquefy or collapse.

This means that the vitreous tugs on the retina, causing an innappropriate activation of the photoreceptor cells and subsequent flickers, shimmers or flashes of light. This would explain why loud noises, lifting weights and lack of sleep lead to visual aura. Problems with retinal photoreceptors and subsequent optical disturbances are more common in people with migraines, ischemia, glaucoma, uveitis, myopia and the elderly. However, the symptoms should last no more than 20-60 minutes at a time and resolve themselves in 2-3 days at most.

In most cases, visual auras are no reason for concern and pose no health risk. How long do visual aurae last? Symptoms may last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. If they occur for more than 2-3 days, then a visit to the ophthalmologist is in order to rule out any serious underlying health problem. Unlike visual aurae, eye floaters are particles physically present in the vitreous humour of the eye and usually do not disappear.

Treatment for visual auras

Visual auras do not generally require treatment, but rather resolve themselves. But for this to happen, you may need to identify what has been causing these optical disturbances in the first place and learn to avoid it. If the optical effects are a only a symptom of an underlying medical condition, then it is best to see your doctor for professional treatment.

Here are a few tips and tricks that may help prevent and even treat visual auras:
1) Getting enough sleep.
2) Relieving stress.
3) Staying away from loud noises.
4) Using hearing protection (earplugs, earmuffs).
5) Eating balanced, nutritious meals.
6) Taking dietary supplements to promote vision health.
7) Ceasing activities such as reading or driving when visual disturbances appear.
8) Monitoring alcohol, coffee and caffeinated beverages intake.

Sleeping enough should help relieve strain on the eyes and promote good vision. Because dietary habits play an important part in migraine control and visual auras often accompany migraines, it might be best to monitor your coffee, alcohol, caffeinated beverages, luncheon meats etc. intake. Similarly, having a balanced diet that supplies essential nutrients such as carotenoid antioxidants, vitamins A and C and dietary minerals is recommended.

Some people report feeling better after taking magnesium supplements, but research on the subject is lacking. It has been suggested that women with a history of migraines with auras should be careful with any form of hormone replacement therapy they may be under because hormonal fluctuations may play a role in triggering migraines and visual aura.

Using hearing protection when in loud environments is recommended. Similarly, lifting heavy weights should be avoided if you notice the strain of lifting triggers visual auras. It is also extremely important to cease dangerous activities such as driving or operating heavy machinery as soon as the visual disturbances occur to avoid accidents.

This post was updated on Monday / July 20th, 2020 at 2:49 PM

20 thoughts on “Visual Aura: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment”

  1. This article was helpful. I think I experienced a visual aura/fortification scotoma last evening, with no other symptoms or headache. It was scary since I am 71 and while healthy, have slightly raised blood pressure, early stage glaucoma with micro stent drains and had cataract surgery both eyes a year ago. Sick of EYE STUFF. Thought possibly retinal detachment which my ophthalmologists have had me on alert for many years, not floaters however with last night’s experience. Then I thought TIA. Anyway your article has put me some what into feeling non-emergency and I have put feelers out to my ophthalmology docs to see if they feel like I should be examined more closely.

    • Happy to hear your found useful information about visual aura, Tricia. Hope everything is alright and wishing you lots of health!

  2. Well mine are occuring several times a week and the have several blind areas, many oscillating circular zigzags, not just one or two, I also have palinopsia. This has gone on for years getting worse all the time. Two neuros say I have RR MS due to other symptoms, two other neuros question that I do. I eat an organic vegetarian with fish and eggs diet. Sometimes I will have two attacks a day, other times, maybe three a week, or seven times or more a week. I have good health otherwise, good BP etc. I do get tingling and numbness with some of the attacks. They can come on at any time in any weather and even in bed at night. My MRI shows several brain lesions some in the interior cortex. It is debilitating but no doctor has helped.

    • I am sorry to hear about everything you’re going through. I can’t imagine what it feels like to have to deal with all these symptoms and not have a definitive answer for what’s going on, or a solution. It appears the visual aura may be a result of the brain lesions identified on the MRI. The lesions may have promoted the neurologists to consider MS as well. In any case, it can help to also see an eye doctor and just check out your vision, if you haven’t yet. The eye doctor may identify any possible physical problems within the eye and recommend a course of treatment if needed.
      It’s difficult to say for certain what causes an aura manifestation in the eye, but it helps to try to understand triggering factors or identify associations such as migraines, loud noises, lack of sleep, stress, injury etc. Just as important, it’s always a good idea to monitor visual aura evolution and tackle any issue to prevent potential vision problems later on.
      Wishing you lots of health!

  3. wow . this explanation is exactly what i experienced . the first time about 5 years ago i saw an optometrist right away and was told my symptoms could be an aura . and i had them about 5 times since then and they last approximately 20 minutes . today i had another one . zig zag lines all across my vision field in bright rainbow colours . and fragmented vision when i look at text . and i haven’t felt so good all day . only have a slight headache . i am 72 years old .
    November 20 . 2018

    • Hello, Marianne. It’s a good idea to have this checked out by a doctor, especially if the headache continues. Wishing you lots of health!

  4. I have been getting auras without followed headache since I was a child, am now 78 yrs old and still get them occasionally. They are annoying but do slowly disappear. My children get them too so am thinking its a genetic thing. Still don’t know why they happen, no rhyme or reason to the episodes. Is there any research on whether they can be passed to children?

    • Hello, Olga. There is such a thing as ‘migraine with auras’. And research shows that migraines with auras seem to be genetic. So this might explain why your children are also getting these symptoms occasionally. If the headaches are too strong, occur too often or there are other symptoms, it might be a good idea to see a doctor just to know everything is okay. You can read more about some of the possible causes of visual auras in the article.

      Here are a few articles on the genetics of migraines with visual auras (you can look up the titles):
      1) Genetics of migraine in the age of genome-wide association studies, by Markus Sch√ľrks, published in the J Headache Pain. 2012 Jan.
      2) Genetic loading in familial migraine with aura, published in the‚ÄāJournal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 74(8):1128-30, in August 2003.
      3) Studies on the Pathophysiology and Genetic Basis of Migraine, by Claudia F Gasparini, Heidi G. Sutherland, and Lyn R Griffiths, published in Curr Genomics. 2013 Aug; 14(5): 300‚Äď315.

      Hope this helps and wishing you lots of health!

  5. I have had these small flashing spots and lines every day for 6+ months. Sometimes they are more prominent and sometimes i don’t see any. when im not anxious they don’t interfere with my life but recently ive been very scared of brain tumor. I have no other symptoms. Im 16. Should probably visit the doc.

    • Hi, E. M. It’s a good idea to see a doctor about these flashing spots and lines in vision you’ve been experiencing. All types of changes in one’s field of vision are best investigated by a medical professional. However, seeing spots or flashes doesn’t automatically mean you have a brain tumor, so don’t go thinking the worst. Zigzag lines in vision, hazy or shimmering or wavy lines or other visual disturbances, blind spots and anything even remotely abnormal that interferes with normal vision should always be seen by a doctor, but know they can have the most benign causes.

      For example, it’s possible for stress or anxiety to cause visual disturbances of the likes, or tired eyes caused by sleep deprivation or too much screen time, rapid eye movements or loud noises. Looking at the sun directly can also be a cause. So see the doctor and try not to worry too much at this point. Wishing you lots of health and hope to hear back from you with good news!

  6. My zig-zag patterns start small and then expand outward. Whole episode lasts about a half-hour. Once it’s over, I can go back to whatever I was doing. No headache, pain, or other symptoms. Had this only 2 or 3 times. Dr. said not to worry, that it was silent migraine.

    At night, when I am reading in bed and tired, the page will show patterns instead of the text. Once I shift my vision is it OK. Does that happen to everyone? Also each eye sees things with a slightly different tint (one more blue and the other more pink). Is that normal?

    • I haven’t experienced the entire range of symptoms associated with visual aura, but I have seen some of the patterns you are describing. Especially when reading at night, like you said. Just like in your case, I would see patterns instead of text in a book or on the computer. Sometimes the patterns look like shimmering zig-zag lines, other times like dark or something of the likes of incandescent red spots or blotches appearing over words. If I stopped reading and closed my eyes even for two minutes or shifted my vision and looked at a wall or a door for a few seconds, they would disappear and I could resume my normal activity. Over time, I’ve come to realize the cause was tired eyes and the visual aura symptoms were amplified by poor lighting in the room. So, yeah, this happened to me too. My doctor told me I shouldn’t worry so long as I didn’t have recurrent headaches or head pain or nose bleeding.

      But I can’t say I’ve experienced seeing in slightly different colors or tints in each eye. I think this is worth investigating by a doctor. I’d go to an ophthalmologist or optometrist about this particular issue, just to be reassured everything is okay. An eye exam will help determine if the difference in color perceived by one or both of the eyes is a result of a higher intraoccular pressure in one or both of the eyes, potential problems with the optic nerve or maybe a condition like glaucoma or cataract.
      If your eyes are physically healthy, then it could just be a change in color perception caused by tired eyes or strain on the eyes, sleep deprivation or differences in lighting, going from bright lighting to poor lighting or something to do with a change in your surroundings.

      Visual aura symptoms can vary a lot and a whole range of factors can trigger them. Sometimes it’s something as simple as reading in dim light, having tired eyes or being in bright light (think of how bright it is outside when there’s snow everywhere or at noon, during a sunny summer day). Other times it’s extremely loud noises that produce strong vibrations or irritants, pollen or a medical condition. In any case, just have an eye exam and see what the doctor says about seeing in different colors with each eye. Hope this helps and wishing you lots of health!

  7. THANK YOU so much for this information. I am late 40’s and never had anything like this happen before – colourful zigzags across my vision and increased blind spot. Very scary as unable to see properly. Other than extremely tired, no other symptoms. I have just come off a long drive in pouring rain and had a rather late night last night with a moderate amount of wine…. I had a coffee just before the drive so expect that didn’t help. Symptoms completely gone in 20 minutes. Need to get more sleep! Very alarming symptoms so thank you for the reassurance.

    • Visual aura, more commonly referred to as zigzag lines in front of the eyes or zigzag vision, happens to almost everybody, Jane. It’s true that it’s more likely to occur when you’re tired, when you’re spending a lot of time in front of a screen or doing paperwork, reading in low light, driving long hours, after you’ve been exposed to noises loud enough to produce upsetting vibrations etc. Stimuli such as coffee, energy drinks or other caffeinated beverages can also act as triggers/contributing factors, although they are not usually what cause visual aura in the first place. It’s a good idea to rest more, but I’d say it’s also a good idea to see an ophthalmologist for a routine eye check. Visual auras can sometimes indicate a need for glasses, to help with eye strain. Wishing you lots of health, Jane!

  8. Thank you so much for this very helpful article! I was especially interested in the age factor. I had my first episode when in my seventies after rapidly consuming a caffeinated beverage. I had no further episodes for nearly ten years, have had three in the past four years, and am now 81 years of age. I see my ophthalmologist every six months, and he has confirmed that they are probably ocular migraines (since my eyes are generally healthy). Except for the first one, I can discern no contributing factors, but I will continue to pay close attention and try not to panic when they occur.

    • I’m happy to hear the article helped you, Sunnyfl. You’re doing all the right things by seeing your ophthalmologist regularly and not panicking. Wishing you lots of health!

  9. Thanks for responding to my comment. I did forget to ask about another visual “disturbance” that my ophthalmologist also was not concerned about, but he also did not say what might be causing it. Often, when I awaken in my dimly lit bedroom, I see a large shadow (for want of a better word) almost totally blocking my field of vision. It was quite scary at first, but it always disappears after several hard blinks. It never happens in daylight or in a lighted room and only happens upon awakening (i.e., after my eyes have been closed for quite a while). Do you have any explanation for this? In advance, I thank you for any clarification.

    • It might just be related to your eyes adjusting to light, especially if it’s happening in both eyes (the brain might take a little to process information), or it might be something else. Nobody can really say what is causing this phenomenon without tests. When you get the chance, see an ophthalmologist and run this by him/her. The ophthalmologist will surely recommend some tests to check for any underlying issues, if there are any that is. Hope this helps!

  10. I’ve been getting this for about 10 years. Sometimes I go 2 or 3 months without. I’ve just had what I call an ‘attack’ and also had one last night. It starts off with just a tiny blind spot and I know an ‘attack’ is on the way. I know what will happen and how long it will last. Blind spot becomes a bit bigger (roughly the ‘er’ of the word bigger would be missing). This lasts about 5 minutes then a shimmering effect appears. (The picture at start of this article showing a large arc is exactly what I get). This lasts about 10 to 15 minutes. During all of this I think I feel a kind of light headedness – it’s actually not an unpleasant feeling. After about 25 minutes from start to finish I’m back to normal.
    2 years ago I went to doctor and was referred to opthalmic clinic. All sorts of tests were done and my eyes were declared fine. It was attributed to the causes defined in this article. I was glad to see the word benign mentioned at start of article. I’m 68 and fortunately very fit and healthy. I don’t get or have ever had migraine headaches. I don’t consider this a big problem in my life. I was worried that it could get worse and more frequent or could even lead to blindness. However this article and others like give me peace of mind that I’m fine. Many thanks.

    • So happy to have been of help, Ronnie! Indeed, visual auras are generally benign, but it’s great that you had yours thoroughly investigated by a medical professional. It’s what everyone who’s experienced visual aura or similar optical effects should do, just to rule out more serious causes that could benefit immensely from timely treatment. Wishing you lots of health, Ronnie, and stay safe!

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