Causes and Treatment of Light Sensitivity (Photophobia)

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
May 23, 2022

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.
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Causes

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

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.

Dry eye

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 inflammation

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.

Blepharospasm 

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

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 
  • Itchiness
  • 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

Treatment

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

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)

Home care

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:

  • Beta-blockers
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Anticonvulsants
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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

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is causing my light sensitivity?
There are many possible causes of light sensitivity, also called photophobia. Two of the most common causes are migraine and dry eye, but they can also be caused by inflammation, infection, or other medical conditions. To identify the underlying cause of your photophobia, it’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider.
How do I get rid of my light sensitivity?
Treatment options for light sensitivity will vary depending on the underlying cause of your symptoms. In some cases, prescription treatment may be necessary, which is why it’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing symptoms.
What does light sensitivity feel like?
Light sensitivity, also called photophobia, can cause pain or discomfort in your eyes when you’re exposed to bright, colored, or fluorescent lights (especially sources of blue light). You may also feel as if the light you’re seeing has intensified in brightness. Additional symptoms that you may experience include headache and dry eye.
What deficiencies cause light sensitivity?
In rare cases, zinc deficiency in people undergoing surgery for pancreatic cancer may increase the risk of photophobia or light sensitivity.
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.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.