Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
What is photophobia?
Photophobia is when your eyes are sensitive to light. It may occur temporarily or be an ongoing problem. The term technically means ‘fear of light’, but it is more of an intolerance to light, which can affect people at different lighting levels. You may feel pain or discomfort with bright lights only or sunlight and your lights at home.
Light sensitivity can affect daily life by making it harder to relax, work, or do other tasks without dimming the lights. Photophobia is a symptom of eye or other health condition, not a condition itself.
Many symptoms can accompany light sensitivity. These can include redness, dryness, aching or eye pain, squinting, flashing lights and floaters. Your vision may also be blurred or cloudy, and you might have watery eyes.
Many people with photophobia experience migraines, though migraines can also cause this sensitivity to light. If a migraine is causing your symptoms, you will likely feel or be sick, be more sensitive to noise, and feel tired. These symptoms may last up to a week.
When to seek urgent care
If you experience severe pain or sudden vision changes, call 999 or visit your local emergency room. If the pain is moderate to severe, you may want to seek medical help or call 111 for more advice.
Additional signs to seek urgent care include feeling weak or confused, having a fever, slurred speech, or seizures. You should also ask for advice if you have hit your head recently, as you may have a concussion.
You may notice that certain things cause a sudden light sensitivity, such as a new medication. We call these triggers as they cause reactions in your body — in this case, your eye. Caffeine, watching TV, using your phone, reading, driving, and stress are all possible triggers.
A temporary problem can also cause this symptom, such as a scratched cornea, a migraine, a viral or bacterial infection, or a vitamin or nutrient deficiency. Deficiencies that could cause sensitivity to light include vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B12, lutein, vitamin A (beta-carotene), and some carotenoids.
You may have an eye condition if your symptoms are persistent. Many of these conditions have overlapping symptoms, meaning you might struggle to determine the cause by yourself.
Eye conditions include:
- Ocular albinism
- Retinal damage
- Dry eye syndrome
- Retinal detachment
- Corneal neuropathy
- Macular degeneration
- Optic neuritis (inflamed optic nerve)
- Inflammation in the eye (uveitis or iritis)
If you have had a long-term problem with your eyes or vision, book a consultation with an ophthalmologist (eye specialist).
Some brain conditions can cause this, such as meningitis, supranuclear palsy, a pituitary gland tumour, and a brain injury. Mental health conditions can also cause this symptom, including bipolar disorder, a panic disorder, depression, anxiety and agoraphobia. Speak to your doctor if you experience symptoms of these conditions or have suffered a significant head injury.
Speak to an optometrist if you often experience photophobia. They may refer you to an ophthalmologist (eye specialist) if they believe an eye condition is the underlying cause. At Oculase, our team of eye specialists provide private consultations and diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your symptoms.
One of our experts will carefully examine your eyes and ask about your symptoms, such as how much light you can tolerate and how often you experience light sensitivity. Alongside your eye exam, we may perform a retinal assessment to look at your retina, a light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of your eye, and your vitreous. The vitreous is a gel-like fluid between your lens and retina.
Depending on your symptoms, we may suggest a slit lamp eye exam, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), optical coherence tomography (OCT), AI-powered corneal scans, fluorescein angiography, tonometry (eye pressure test), gonioscopy, or pachymetry. Our specialists will explain what these involve if you need one or a series of tests.
Once we know the cause of your symptoms, we will form a tailored treatment plan to address it. This plan might involve at-home management, eye drops, medication, or a procedure. We discuss these options in further detail below.
Your symptoms may improve with prescription glasses. The wrong prescription or contact lenses can also increase light sensitivity.
Managing it at home
Many methods can help you manage this symptom. When you go outside, try using a parasol or wearing polarised sunglasses, tinted lenses, or a hat. Some people benefit from using rose or red-tinted glasses. However, tinted lenses can increase light sensitivity in some people.
Avoid sunlight when you can by sitting in the shade. You should not wear sunglasses at home, as your eyes can adapt to the dark or use fluorescent lighting. If your eyes feel particularly sensitive, you may benefit from gently pressing a warm compress to your eyes, dimming the lights, or resting for a while.
If you have allergies such as hay fever causing your symptoms or a migraine, take medication to address these, such as an antihistamine or ibuprofen. These two medicines can also lead to light sensitivity.
Eye drops and medication
If lifestyle changes haven’t reduced your symptoms, we may recommend certain medications or eye drops. These can include anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, artificial tears, anti-inflammatory drops, dilating drops, or eye drops with steroids. If you have corneal neuropathy, we may suggest systemic anticonvulsants.
Ask your doctor for a medication review if your symptoms started after taking a new medicine. Medications that can cause sensitivity to light include quinine sulphate, furosemide (a diuretic), retinoids, and certain antibiotics, such as tetracycline and doxycycline.
Surgical and non-surgical procedures
If you have dry eye syndrome, we may suggest a dry eye treatment, including IPL therapy, meibomian gland expression, BlephEx™ and punctal plugs. If your eye is inflamed, you might benefit from an alcohol injection. Injections to the supraorbital nerve can also reduce light sensitivity.
Surgical procedures can address various eye conditions. We may recommend cataract surgery, glaucoma surgery, or corneal transplants, depending on which one you have. After a surgical procedure, your eyes may itch, feel dry, or look red temporarily. You might have some bruising around your eyes and experience blurry vision.
Our specialist will discuss the possible risks and benefits of any procedure that you may require to help you make an informed decision about your eye health.
Book an appointment
Light sensitivity, or photophobia, can disrupt your daily life and indicate an underlying eye or health condition. With years of experience and the latest diagnostic tools, we’re dedicated to providing personalised solutions.
Whether it’s glasses, at-home management techniques, eye drops, or even surgical procedures, we’re here to find the best option for you. Book your appointment today to get the answers you need and regain control over your eye health.