Light Sensitivity (Photophobia)

Photophobia can have just about anyone reaching for their sunglasses. The word "photophobia" comes from the Greek words for "light" (photo) and "fear" (phobia). The fear of or desire to avoid light comes from a particular sensitivity that makes it difficult to be in bright surroundings.

Photophobia can be associated with anything from neurological disorders such as migraines to eye conditions such as uveitis, which involves inflammation of the middle part of the eye.

This article will take a closer look at symptoms that are related to photophobia, as well as possible causes, medications that may bring it on, how it can be treated, and more.

Person with photophobia drawing blind

Grace Cary / Getty Images

Symptoms of Photophobia

To detect if you have photophobia, which can be a symptom of other conditions, think about whether:

  • You find yourself avoiding brightly lit places.
  • You find even regular lights to be too bright.
  • You have eye pain when in normal lighting.
  • Your forehead aches.
  • Brightly lit situations may leave you feeling nauseated.
  • Even with your eyes closed, you see bright-colored spots.
  • You feel unusually tired.

Causes of Photophobia

Photophobia can also be caused by conditions associated with the eye, as well as some neurological ones that can affect key pain-sensing nerves.

It's not always understood why some of these conditions are linked to photophobia. There may be a connection between what's known as the trigeminal nerve system that supplies sensory information at the front of the head and the light-sensitive retina in the back of the eye.

Some common conditions that seem to be related to light sensitivity include:

  • Blepharospasm, involving unusual eyelid muscle contractions
  • Corneal conditions that affect the clear, protective layer of the eye
  • Dry eye
  • Migraines
  • Iritis, which involves inflammation of the portion of the eye that gives it its distinctive color
  • Uveitis caused by inflammation affecting the middle layer of the eye, between the white sclera and the light-sensitive retina. Note that sometimes the terms "uveitis" and "iritis" are used similarly.
  • Brain-related conditions such as meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord)
  • Depression

What Medications Can Cause Photophobia?

Sometimes, photophobia can come on seemingly out of nowhere. This actually may be caused by a medication you've begun taking. Certain drugs can affect the size of your pupil, the dark circle at the center of the eye that expands and contracts depending on the amount of light. Some medications that can cause light sensitivity include:

  • Antidepressant medications
  • Bronchodilators, such as Spiriva (tiotropium bromide), that open up the airways
  • Atropen (aptropine), an agent that blocks the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine
  • Amphetamines, mood altering drugs
  • Cocaine, an addictive stimulant
  • Suphedrine PE (phenylephrine), a decongestant
  • Scopolamine, a skin patch that helps with motion sickness
  • Mydriacyl (tropicamide), which is used by providers to widen the pupils

How to Treat Photophobia

If you find yourself contending with a case of photophobia, you do have treatment options. If photophobia symptoms are mild, you can try the following:

  • Wear sunglasses in bright light.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to shade your eyes.
  • Keep out of sunlight when possible.
  • Keep the lights low and the shades down while indoors.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever.

If the pain lasts more than a few days, is more severe, or starts to occur even when lighting conditions are relatively dim, promptly contact a healthcare provider. They can determine the cause of your photophobia and recommend treatment to alleviate it at the source, such as perhaps managing migraine or quelling eye inflammation.

Some other treatments that a healthcare provider may recommend here include:

  • The use of ocular transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) may provide some relief from photophobia and reduce light sensitivity.
  • Administration of Botox (botulinum toxin A) may help relieve photophobia symptoms, as well as migraine and dry eye.

Risk Factors Associated With Photophobia

Keep in mind that if you have light-colored eyes you may be more prone to light sensitivity. That's because those with darker eyes tend to have more light-absorbing pigment in some of the layers of the eye than you do.

People with dark eyes usually are more able to withstand being outside in sunshine or under bright fluorescent lights than those with lighter eyes. But, even people with dark eye colors can still get photophobia at times.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Photophobia?

If you go to a healthcare provider with complaints of light sensitivity, expect to be asked some questions about when this usually occurs. In addition to taking a detailed account of the severity of your photophobia, your provider will likely run some tests such as the following:

  • Dilating the pupil to look inside the eye
  • Slit lamp exam in which your provider uses a microscope with a bright light to examine the structures inside your eye for any signs of disease
  • Corneal culture to identify the cause if there is an infection and it isn't healing under normal treatment
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to check for neurological disorders such as meningitis

When to See a Healthcare Provider

While a mild case of photophobia can be managed at home, it's important to know when to seek help. Be sure to contact a healthcare provider if:

  • Your symptoms persist for more than a couple of days.
  • You find yourself sensitive to light, even in darkened conditions.
  • Along with the photophobia, you have headaches, blurred vision, or red eyes.
  • You have decreased vision.
  • You have eye pain.

Summary

With photophobia, light can cause discomfort. This can be associated with everything from brow aches to symptoms of nausea and tiredness. Sometimes, this can be brought on by medications, particularly those that affect pupil size. Or, it may be due to dry eye and needing lubricating drops.

Photophobia can also be associated with some eye-related or neurologic conditions. Treatments can range from simple avoidance to the use of TENS stimulation or Botox.

A Word From Verywell

Photophobia may just be a mild annoyance or could be more serious. Your healthcare provider can help you to pinpoint what's causing this light sensitivity and then to take steps to resolve this.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes photophobia?

    Photophobia can be caused by either eye disorders or neurological disorders. Eye problems can include a pupil that is too wide and allows in too much light in, while neurological conditions can include irritation of the trigeminal nerve at the front of the head.

  • Can photophobia cause a migraine?

    Yes. Approximately 80% of people with migraines have photophobia. Light or glare actually triggers around 30% to 60% of migraine attacks. Different types of light can cause migraines, from sunlight to fluorescent bulbs.

  • How can I get rid of photophobia?

    It depends on what's causing it. Sometimes, simple avoidance of bright light or wearing protective sunglasses for a short period can work. In other cases, it's important to get to the root of the cause. Your healthcare provider may recommend administering Botox or applying TENS stimulation.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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