Light sensitivity, also called photophobia, is a common and sometimes debilitating symptom.
For many people, photophobia is not caused by infection or disease, but when the pain is long-lasting and severe, it can be a result of eye problems that warrant medical attention.
In this article, we’ll cover the possible causes of photophobia and when you should reach out to a medical provider for help.
We’ll also cover popular treatment options, including home care for coping with light sensitivity and how to prevent symptoms from occurring.
What is Light Sensitivity (Photophobia)
Photophobia describes an abnormal sensitivity to light that can cause eye pain, discomfort in the eyes, and the sensation that the light present has increased in brightness.
Some people experience photophobia every day, while others may only experience it a few times throughout their life.
The term “photophobia” comes from two Greek words that translate to “fear of light,” but the term actually describes when exposure of the eye to light induces or exacerbates pain, discomfort, or a sense of excessive brightness.
Though anyone can get photophobia, some factors can increase your risk of experiencing the symptom:
- Eye color: People with lighter eye color are more likely to experience photophobia.
- People with migraine: Migraine sufferers are also more likely to experience photophobia as a symptom of their condition.
There are several possible causes of photophobia, some of which will require medical attention.
If you’re unsure about what’s causing your photophobia, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider as soon as possible to identify the cause and the right course of treatment.
Migraine is the most common neurologic disorder that causes photophobia. In fact, photophobia is one of the main criteria used to diagnose migraine.
In a 2009 survey of 103 patients with migraine, 82.5% of respondents reported experiencing photophobia when completing the questionnaire, while only 51.5% of participants reported photophobia during their interviews with the survey leaders.
Though the exact percentage of people with migraine who experience photophobia is unknown, studies show that people with migraine are more light-sensitive both during and between migraine attacks.
When considering non-neurological causes, dry eye and dry eye syndrome are the most common ocular conditions to cause photophobia.
But diagnosing dry eye can be difficult.
If your healthcare provider is examining you for dry eye, they may use different techniques including an examination of the tear film, tear film break-up time, corneal staining with Rose-Bengal or fluorescein, and Schirmer’s testing.
Ocular conditions such as iritis (swelling and inflammation of the iris), cyclitis (inflammation of the middle eye), and blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelids) can also cause photophobia.
In these cases, the more severe the inflammation of the eye, the more severe the sensitivity to light is experienced.
Sensitivity to light is one of the major symptoms of blepharospasm, a movement disorder that causes involuntary and frequent blinking, twitching, squeezing, and closing of the eyelids.
The condition is most commonly seen in people of the female gender who are in their forties to sixties, but the condition can also run in families.
One large survey of people with blepharospasm found that 80% of people experienced photophobia when exposed to bright lights, driving, or while watching television or reading.
Another survey found that 94% of respondents experienced photophobia triggered by bright lights.
Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is an infection of the conjunctiva that can also cause photophobia. Conjunctivitis can be caused by an allergic reaction, environmental irritant, viral infection, or bacterial infection.
Additional ocular symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
- Redness or irritation
- A burning sensation
- A sandy or gritty feeling
- Tearing or watery eyes
- Mucus or pus in one or both eyes that forms a crust during the night
There are several treatment options for photophobia which will vary depending on the cause of your symptoms.
This is why it’s important to have a comprehensive eye exam to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Medical treatment of photophobia caused by severe dry eyes, blepharospasm, and other medical conditions may include:
- Antibiotic eye drops (for bacterial conjunctivitis)
- Artificial tears (for dry eyes)
- Punctual plugs (for dry eyes)
- Dilating drops (which may help with ocular inflammation)
- Sedatives (to allow for prolonged sleep and closed eyes)
- Gabapentin (for pain associated with photophobia)
- Melatonin (for sleep)
Depending on the cause and severity of your photophobia, there are some things you can do at home to soothe your light sensitivity, including:
- Avoid direct sunlight
- Rest while closing your eyes
- Wear dark or tinted glasses or sunglasses
- Darken the room
It’s important to note that the misuse of dark or tinted lenses can increase photophobia.
People with severe light sensitivity who wear dark glasses should be encouraged to reduce their dark adaptation with the help of their medical provider because chronic darkness can exacerbate the pain associated with photophobia.
Tips for coping with light sensitivity
Many of the home care strategies listed above can help you to cope with photophobia.
However, the right coping mechanisms for you will vary depending on the exact cause of your light sensitivity, which is why it’s important to be evaluated by a healthcare provider if you’re experiencing symptoms for the first time.
Tips to Prevent Light Sensitivity
Unfortunately, photophobia isn’t always preventable.
But once you identify the triggers that cause your photophobia, doing your best to avoid them can help prevent symptoms.
Other strategies that can help to prevent some causes of photophobia include:
- Practicing good personal hygiene, including washing hands thoroughly with soap and water and not touching your eyes with unclean hands
- Limiting or eliminating exposure to people who are sick
- Staying up-to-date with your vaccinations
Some medications can help to prevent migraine-associated photophobia, including:
- Calcium channel blockers
When To See a Healthcare Provider
It’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing symptoms for the first time or if your symptoms are severe and interrupting your day-to-day life.
Specific symptoms that warrant immediate medical attention include:
- If your photophobia is so severe that you need to wear sunglasses indoors
- Photophobia accompanied by headaches, red-eye, blurred vision or change in vision
- Nausea or dizziness
- Sore or wound in the eye
- Changes in hearing
- Numbness or tingling elsewhere in the body
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Blepharospasm: past, present, future. (1998).
Painful stimulation of the forehead increases photophobia in migraine sufferers. (1993).
Photophobia—What Is It? Can It Be Treated? (2016).
Shedding Light on Blepharospasm: A Patient-Researcher Partnership Approach to Assessment of Photophobia and Impact on Activities of Daily Living. (2007).
Shedding Light on Photophobia. (2013).
Usefulness of a photophobia questionnaire in patients with migraine. (2009).