Updated on 

November 24, 2021

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Photophobia (Light Sensitivity)

Quick Look

  • 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

What is Photophobia?

Photophobia describes intolerance to light or light sensitivity

People with photophobia have a difficult time 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 is not bright.

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 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
  • 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?

Photophobia is not a disease. 

It might be a symptom of a condition, such as an infection, inflammation, or another issue. 

Some people just have sensitive eyes aggravated by staring at screens or being in bright sunlight. 

Sensitivity to light can also be caused by a disease that’s not related 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.

Common causes of light sensitivity include:

  • Corneal abrasion
  • Uveitis
  • Detached retina
  • Contact lens irritation
  • Sunburn
  • Refractive surgery
  • Color blindness
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Inflammation of the cornea (keratitis)
  • Iritis

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. They are caused by reactions to certain foods, stress, hormonal imbalances, and environmental changes. 

In addition to pain and light sensitivity, migraines can also 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 outermost layer of the eye 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. 

It’s usually caused by a virus but can also develop due to allergies or exposure to certain bacteria. 

In addition to light sensitivity, conjunctivitis also 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. 

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 otherwise unexplained sensitivity to light. 

In some cases, people with neurological disorders that require medical attention experience sensitivity to light. 

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 feelings of dryness or grittiness. 

Diagnosing Photophobia

There are several things your doctor can do to diagnose photophobia. First, they’ll assess your sensitivity to light by asking you questions about your level of discomfort in certain situations.

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

  • Slit-lamp eye exam. This uses a special microscope and light to examine your eyes.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This uses magnetic and radio waves to create detailed pictures of the eye, orbit, and brain.
  • Tear film exam. This test 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.

The most important thing you can do to treat the condition is to seek medical attention for any underlying causes. 

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

If photophobia is a side effect of a medication you’re using, speak to your doctor about alternatives. 

Your doctor might recommend replacing or discontinuing the medication if photophobia is interfering with everyday life. 

If you were born with or have developed a natural sensitivity to light, and there is no other underlying cause, there are several things you can do to make your eyes more comfortable. 

For example, wear: 

  • Wide-brimmed hats
  • Sunglasses with UV protection to prevent sun damage
  • Tinted 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
  • Specialty tinted lenses like 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
7 Cited Research Articles
  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, 
Melody Huang is an optometrist and freelance health writer. Through her writing, Dr. Huang enjoys educating patients on how to lead healthier and happier lives. She also has an interest in Eastern medicine practices and learning about integrative medicine. When she’s not working, Dr. Huang loves reviewing new skin care products, trying interesting food recipes, or hanging with her adopted cats.
Kelly has experience working with clients in a variety of industries, including legal, medical, marketing, and travel. Her goal is to share important information that people can use to make decisions about their health and the health of their loved ones. From choosing the best treatment programs to improving dental and vision health to finding the best method for helping anyone who is struggling with health issues, she hopes to share what she learns through informative content.
https://www.visioncenter.org/author/kelly/
Author: Kelly Jamrozy  | UPDATED November 24, 2021
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Medical reviewer: Dr. Melody Huang, O.D.
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Dr. Melody Huang, O.D.
The information provided on VisionCenter.org should not be used in place of actual information provided by a doctor or a specialist.

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