If you’ve ever been sitting in a dark room when someone turns on a bright light, you know how jarring it can be. Your eyes squint as they adjust to the sudden change, and they might even hurt for a moment. For most people, it’s a temporary sensation. For those who have photophobia, however, exposure to light causes constant pain and irritation.
We talked to UNC Health ophthalmologist Keirnan Willett, MD, about the condition and what it means for your eyes.
What is photophobia?
Photophobia is an extreme sensitivity to any kind of light, whether that’s sunlight, indoor lights, or light from computer displays or phone screens. People experiencing photophobia complain of discomfort and pain in the presence of light and find themselves squinting or keeping their eyes closed. Some people develop headaches as a result of the light.
Photophobia isn’t a condition; it’s a symptom.
“If you’re experiencing photophobia, I recommend you see a doctor, because there are many different causes,” Dr. Willett says. “We’ll work to figure out why you’re so sensitive to light and what we can do about it.”
What causes photophobia?
Photophobia is a symptom of neurological and eye conditions.
Neurological causes of photophobia: Migraines are the most common neurological cause of light sensitivity, and people can experience light sensitivity even when they’re not having a migraine, which can make it difficult to connect the two. Tension and cluster headaches, concussions and other traumatic brain injuries, and brain tumors also can cause light sensitivity.
Eye-related causes of photophobia: Dr. Willett says dry eye disease, which affects about 15 percent of the population, is the most common eye-related cause of photophobia. Light sensitivity is also a common symptom of uveitis (inflammation in the eye) and blepharospasm (uncontrollable eye twitching and blinking). Other eye diseases and injuries can cause photophobia, too, which is why it’s important to see a physician.
Light sensitivity can also be a side effect of medications, including benzodiazepines and sedatives.
Dr. Willett says it’s normal to have some light sensitivity after a visit to an ophthalmologist or after eye surgery.
“As part of the eye exam, we dilate the eye, which lets more light into the eye, but dilation wears off after a few hours,” he says. “The eye is also dilated during surgery. After surgery, the surface of the eye is inflamed because it’s healing, and when the dilation causes the pupil to change size, that inflammation can cause additional sensitivity.”
How is photophobia treated?
Treating photophobia means treating the condition that is causing the sensitivity.
“With any symptom, we’ll assess it, complete a medical history, and conduct a physical exam and an eye exam,” Dr. Willett says. “If there’s a concern about a head issue, the patient may undergo a CT or an MRI, in collaboration with a neurologist. If the eye looks healthy, we’ll have patients follow up with their primary care provider or a neurologist for something like headache management.”
Since there are many causes of photophobia, there are many treatment options. In the case of uveitis, treatment might include corticosteroid eye drops such as prednisolone, prednisone pills, steroid injections or immunosuppressive medications.
For dry eye disease, the treatment is usually artificial tears to lubricate the eye and eyelid treatments to improve the quality of natural tears.
Dr. Willett says you may have to try different types of eye drops before finding the right one. During that time, you can reduce the symptoms of light sensitivity by using glasses with tinted lenses, but Dr. Willett says it’s a temporary solution.
“It’s important to let an eye doctor take a look to avoid long-term issues with the eye,” he says. “If you experience new or ongoing light sensitivity, don’t ignore it. There are many treatments for light sensitivity once we determine the cause.”
Are blue eyes more sensitive to light?
People with albinism—a condition in which the body makes little to no melanin, often resulting in very light eyes—tend to have photophobia.
“When an eye has less pigment, there’s less of a curtain soaking up extra light,” Dr. Willett says. This doesn’t mean that blue eyes are necessarily more sensitive to light. “There haven’t been any rigorous studies that directly tested whether blue eyes result in higher rates of photophobia,” he says.
Whether your eyes are brown, green or blue, if you have light sensitivity, you should discuss it with your doctor.
Experiencing extreme light sensitivity? It’s a good idea to schedule an eye exam to have it checked out. Need a doctor? Find one near you.