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Light Sensitivity (Photophobia): Causes, Symptoms And Treatments

Light sensitivity, also known as photophobia, is a condition where you are unable to tolerate light. 

Light sensitivity

When you have photophobia, any light source such as street lamp, headlight, sunlight, fires and fluorescent light, can cause discomfort. 

The level of discomfort will depend on the severity of your photophobia. 

Some people are only bothered by bright lights but in extreme cases, any source of light can agonizing. 

Photophobia typically causes a need to squint and close the eyes and it is often accompanied by headache or nausea. It is fairly common and occurs in all ages, young and old.

Symptoms Of Photophobia

Here are some signs that your light sensitivity might have increased:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Pain in the eye
  • Headache
  • Need to squint
  • Excessive tearing
  • Neck stiffness
  • Need to close eyes frequently
  • Burning sensation in the eye

What Causes Light Sensitivity?

Photophobia is not an eye disease but a symptom of many possible causes.

Let’s break it down into two categories - natural and external factors.

Natural Causes:

  • Large pupils - Pupil is the black portion of our eye that regulates the amount of light entering our eyes. It adapts accordingly to the amount of light that is available in our environment. People who have larger pupil automatically take in more light thus are more sensitive to light.
  • Light-colored eyes - Melanin is the pigment that gives our skin and eye the dark color. Other than the color, melanin also absorbs light. People with lighter eye color are more prone to photophobia as they have less melanin in their eyes to help absorb light. People who have albinism are extremely sensitive to light as they have no ocular pigment to help absorb light entering the eyes.
  • Migraines - Any type of light or sound stimulants are extremely painful to migraine sufferers as migraines frequently cause both photophobia and hyperacusis (sensitivity to sounds). That is the reason why they prefer to stay in dark and silent room when migraine hit. Fortunately, these symptoms go off after the migraine event.

External Causes:

  • Refractive surgeries usually cause patient to be intolerable to light for weeks. Some can develop transient light sensitivity which have to be treated with medication.
  • Chalazion (painless bump that form underneath the eyelid)
  • Deficiency of beta carotene and lutein
  • Dry eye syndrome makes the cornea more sensitive to light as the sensitive corneal nerves are exposed due to dryness.
  • Drug abuse
  • Sunburn in eyes
  • Computer vision syndrome. As people tend to blink less during extended hours of computer usage, they tend to have dry eyes.
  • Corneal ulcer (open sores in the cornea commonly caused by infection)
  • Medications such as anti-malarial drugs, antihistamines, digoxin and some blood pressure medications can cause photosensitivity
  • Other conditions such as some kinds of poisoning, rabies and keratitis can lead to grey rather than colored vision in addition to light sensitivity.

If you have a habit of reading drug label, you will notice that numerous medications include ‘increased light sensitivity’ somewhere in their long list of side effects.

Many drugs alter our nervous system which causes the pupil to become larger and allows additional light into the eye.

Common medications known to cause photophobia include antibiotics such as tetracycline and doxycycline, antiviral drugs such as iodxuridine and trifluridine, motion sickness drugs such as scopolamine, diabetic drugs such as chlorpropamide and glyburide, and any medications that dilute the pupil.

Treatments For Photophobia

The best way to treat photophobia is to identify and treat the underlying cause.

Once the underlying cause is remedied, the sensitivity level will be decreased and photophobia disappears.

If your light sensitivity is caused by:

Natural - If you are naturally sensitive to light, keep yourself shaded from bright light by wearing sunglasses (ones that have UV rays protection and glare reduction), brimmed hats and keeping the room dim. Photochromic lenses can be considered also as these lenses darken automatically outdoors and block 100 percent of the sun's UV rays.

Drugs - Check with your doctor whether it is possible to discontinue or switch to a drug that doesn’t increase sensitivity to light.

Dry Eyes - Keep your eyes lubricated with preservatives free artificial tear drops. Consider getting a humidifier to keep the air around you moist.

Vitamins Deficiency - Sensitivity to light is a common symptom of vitamins A and B-complex deficiency. Supplementing with good quality eye vitamins has been found useful in reducing photophobia.

Eat more cheese and almonds as they contain riboflavin which has been found to be helpful in migraines, where photophobia is often a symptom.

Carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin are found to be useful in reducing light sensitivity symptoms. Eat more dark green vegetables such as spinach and collards, which are high in lutein and zeaxanthin. 

To find out how to treat the other causes of photophobia such as retinal detachment and cataracts, click on the appropriate links under the External Causes section for specific treatments.

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