Updated on  February 22, 2024
7 min read

What Is Photophobia? (Light Sensitivity)

7 sources cited
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Photophobia describes intolerance to light or light sensitivity. It may stem from heightened sensitivity in the trigeminal nerve, which controls the sensation of the face and eye.

Trigeminal nerve diagram or illustration

People with photophobia have difficulty with bright sunlight, incandescent light, or fluorescent light. The sensitivity causes discomfort, squinting, and headaches. 

Someone with severe photophobia is sensitive to all types of light, even when the light isn’t bright.

Who Experiences Photophobia?

People of all ages are affected by photophobia. It can affect one or both eyes, although both eyes are usually affected. 

For some, it’s a temporary problem and not serious. It causes short-term discomfort and resolves on its own in a few days or weeks. 

For others, it’s ongoing and/or recurrent. Chronic photophobia or extreme light sensitivity interferes with everyday life. It might also be linked to a medical condition that requires professional treatment.

Symptoms of Photophobia

Symptoms of photophobia include:

  • Sensitivity to light exposure
  • Aversion to light
  • Seeing bright-colored spots or dots, even when it’s dark or when you close your eyes
  • Sensing extreme brightness from regular lighting
  • Eye pain or discomfort when looking into a light
  • Difficulty focusing on pictures or text
  • Headaches
  • Squinting
  • Tearing
  • Sensations of eye dryness
  • Desire to shut your eyes

Photophobia is also accompanied by fatigue and nausea in some people.

What Causes Photophobia?

Common causes of light sensitivity include:

  • Corneal abrasion. A scratch or injury to the cornea (the front surface of the eye)
  • Uveitis. Inflammation of the uvea, which is the middle layer of the eye
  • Detached retina. Occurs when the retina at the back of the eye becomes separated from its normal position
  • Contact lens irritation. Can result from the improper fit of the lens or an allergic reaction to the lens material
  • Sunburn. Excessive exposure to UV radiation from the sun or other light sources can cause light-sensitive eyes
  • Refractive surgery. Light sensitivity is one common side effect of refractive surgery
  • Color blindness. Certain types of color blindness can have light sensitivity as a symptom
  • Conjunctivitis. When your conjunctiva is inflamed, light sensitivity is one of its possible symptoms
  • Inflammation of the cornea (keratitis). Can make your eyes more sensitive to light
  • Iritis. Inflammation of the iris can also cause light sensitivity

Less common causes of photophobia include:

  • Keratosis follicularis spinulosa decalvans (KFSD)
  • Side effects of medications such as belladonna, quinine, furosemide, tetracycline, and doxycycline
  • Botulism
  • Rabies
  • Mercury poisoning
  • Meningitis 

8 Risk Factors of Photophobia

People with the following conditions have an elevated risk of photophobia:

1. Migraines

Migraines trigger severe headaches. Reactions to certain foods, stress, hormonal imbalances, and environmental changes cause migraines. 

In addition to pain and light sensitivity, migraines can cause nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and noise sensitivity. 

2. Encephalitis 

Encephalitis is a brain condition that causes inflammation. It can be caused by a viral infection or another issue. It’s potentially fatal.

3. Meningitis

Meningitis is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. 

In addition to light sensitivity, it also causes hearing loss, seizures, and brain damage. It’s also potentially fatal.

4. Subarachnoid Hemorrhage

A subarachnoid hemorrhage occurs when there is bleeding between the brain and its surrounding tissue. This condition can cause brain damage, stroke, or death.

5. Corneal Abrasion

Corneal abrasions occur when the eye’s outermost layer is scratched or injured. It’s common and can occur when someone has dirt, sand, metal, or another foreign substance in their eye. 

If severe or left untreated, a corneal abrasion can lead to a corneal ulcer.

6. Scleritis

Scleritis is inflammation of the white part of the eye. It’s usually caused by diseases of the immune system like lupus. People with scleritis experience watery eyes, pain, and blurred vision.

7. Conjunctivitis

Also known as pink eye, conjunctivitis is an infection or inflammation of the tissue that covers the white of the eye. 

A virus usually causes it but can also develop due to allergies or exposure to certain bacteria. In addition to light sensitivity, conjunctivitis causes itching, redness, and pain.

8. Dry Eye Syndrome

Everyone experiences dry eyes from time to time. For some, the condition is chronic and causes photophobia and other issues. 

Many different things cause dry eye syndrome, including environmental exposure, age, certain medications, and some medical conditions. 

Should I Be Worried About Photophobia?

Photophobia is not a disease.  However, it might be a symptom of a condition, such as an infection, inflammation, or another issue. 

Some people have sensitive eyes aggravated by staring at screens or being in bright sunlight. Sensitivity to light can also be caused by a disease unrelated to eye health.

People with lighter eye colors tend to have a higher incidence of photophobia. Dark eyes contain higher pigment levels that protect against bright lights.

When to See a Doctor

Occasional photophobia is usually not a cause for concern. However, there are instances in which you should seek medical attention. 

You should speak to your doctor if you experience a sudden and unexplained light sensitivity. In some cases, people with neurological disorders requiring medical attention experience light sensitivity. 

Severe complications from photophobia are rare, but it does interfere with everyday life. 

People with photophobia might wear sunglasses in unusual circumstances, develop frequent headaches, or avoid situations when bright light is an issue. Light sensitivity also leads to overall eye discomfort and dryness or grittiness. 

Diagnosing Photophobia

There are several things your doctor can do to diagnose photophobia:

Medical Consultation

First, they’ll assess your sensitivity to light by asking you questions about your level of discomfort in certain situations.

The doctor may ask questions like:

  • How bad is your eye pain when exposed to light?
  • When did the light sensitivity begin?
  • How long has the eye pain existed?
  • Do you take any eye medications?

Medical Tests

Additionally, you’ll likely undergo several medical tests, including:

  • Slit-lamp eye exam. Uses a special microscope and light to examine your eyes
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Uses magnetic and radio waves to create detailed pictures of the eye, orbit, and brain
  • Tear film exam. Checks the tear level in your eyes to see if dry eye is causing symptoms of photophobia

Treating Photophobia

Several treatments are available to ease the symptoms of photophobia. These include:

Address Underlying Causes

The most important thing you can do to treat the condition is to seek medical attention. A doctor can assess any underlying causes associated with photophobia. 

In many cases, if you cure or manage the cause of photophobia, your sensitivity to light will decrease.

Medication Evaluation

If photophobia is a side effect of a medication, speak to your doctor about alternatives. Your doctor might recommend replacing or discontinuing the medication if photophobia interferes with everyday life. 

Enhance Your Eye Comfort

If you were born with or have developed a natural sensitivity to light, you can take steps to make your eyes more comfortable. 

For example, wear: 

  • Wide-brimmed hats
  • Sunglasses with UV protection to prevent sun damage
  • Tinted dark glasses with photochromic lenses that automatically darken outdoors
  • Polarized sunglasses that protect against reflections of bright lights from the sun, roads, sand, water, and other reflective surfaces
  • Prosthetic contact lenses 
  • Light-filtering shields that can be worn with prescription eyeglasses and reduce glare and light transmission
  • Tinted glasses with special lenses like the FL-41 lenses

Preventing Photophobia

The best way to prevent photophobia is to protect your eyes and overall health. The lower your risk of illnesses and diseases linked to photophobia, the lower your risk of experiencing sensitivity to light.

Other things you can do to prevent photophobia:

  • Avoid excessive use of screens
  • Use blue-light filtering glasses when you must look at screens
  • Wear sunglasses with UV protection when outside
  • Get enough rest
  • Schedule routine eye exams
  • Seek medical conditions if you experience symptoms related to migraines or neurological disorders
  • Learn how to prevent migraine attacks


  • Photophobia is extreme sensitivity to light
  • There are many different causes of photophobia, some of which are serious
  • Symptoms of photophobia often interfere with comfort or enjoyment of everyday life
  • Speak to your doctor about photophobia, especially if symptoms arise suddenly
  • There are several treatment options available for managing and preventing photophobia
Updated on  February 22, 2024
7 sources cited
Updated on  February 22, 2024
  1. Digre, Kathleen B., and K.C. Brennan. “Shedding Light on Photophobia.” Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology, vol. 32, no. 1, Mar. 2012.

  2. Photophobia (Concept Id: C0085636) – MedGen – NCBI.” Www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

  3. Photophobia | Hereditary Ocular Diseases.” Disorders.eyes.arizona.edu.

  4. Photophobia : MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” Medlineplus.gov.

  5. Light Sensitivity.” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 3 Feb. 2021.

  6. Photophobia: Looking for Causes and Solutions.” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 1 Nov. 2005.

  7. MD Roundtable: Diagnosing and Treating Photophobia.” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 1 Dec. 2015, 

The information provided on VisionCenter.org should not be used in place of actual information provided by a doctor or a specialist.