Photophobia or Light Sensitivity

Although in most cases photophobia is harmless, sometimes it may indicate a more severe problem. Learn about this condition that makes it hard to see clearly in bright light environments.

Light sensitivity, or photophobia, is an intolerance of light. Some only feel discomfort from bright lights, while others in extreme cases can not stand any type of light. Sources can range from sunlight, fluorescent light, incandescent light or flames of candles or fires. Some people tend to squint or close their eyes if their sensitivity is too strong. There are many different reasons why someone could have a sensitivity to lights, but the biggest issue is the underlying cause, as photophobia is a symptom, not a condition or disease. Photophobia is known to happen to all ages, young and old.

Symptoms of Photophobia

There are a few obvious symptoms to recognize your sensitivity to light has increased, such as:

  • Discomfort
  • Need to close eyes
  • Need to squint
  • Burning
  • Excessive tearing

In some cases, there might not be any sort of symptoms except the sensitivity to light itself. People have reported nothing one day, then sensitivity the next day. Each individual is unique and experiences different symptoms. Again, it depends on the underlying cause. In other cases, people will suffer many other types of symptoms, depending on the condition or disease that is causing the light sensitivity.

Causes of Photophobia

There are several different reasons why someone might be suffering from photophobia or sensitivity to light. It’s not a disease, disorder, problem or condition. In fact, it’s a symptom of many different diseases, disorders, problems and conditions. For example, an infection or inflammation that irritates the eyes can cause photophobia. Also, it can be a symptom of an underlying disease such as a viral illness or a severe headache or migraine.

A person’s eye color can also affect ones sensitivity to light. People with lighter colored eyes experience different levels of light sensitivity versus people with darker colored eyes. It’s said that this is due to lack of pigment in lighter colored eyes, and more pigment in darker colored eyes is said to protect against harsh lighting such as bright sunlight.

Sometimes photophobia is accompanied by problems and conditions like color deficiency, botulism, conjunctivitis, keratitis, iritis, and more. Common causes include:

  • Corneal abrasions
  • Detached retina
  • Contact lens irritations
  • Sunburn
  • Refractive surgery
  • Uveitis
  • Medications

When it comes to medications, there are a few that are known to causes photophobia, such as belladonna, quinine, tetracycline and doxycycline.

Treatment for Photophobia

The number one and best treatment method for relieving the discomfort of photophobia is to address the underlying cause. In most cases, if you treat the underlying cause, the sensitivity levels decrease and the photophobia disappears. If the cause is due to medications, talking with your prescribing doctor or replacing the medication with another effective one could help. If someone is naturally sensitive to light, wearing sunglasses, especially with UV protection, brimmed hats or avoiding bright light situations all together could be the only resolution. In other cases, a prosthetic contact lens that mimics the color of your eye can be used. Always inform your eye care doctor or ophthalmologist about issues you may have, including sensitivity to light, even if you don’t think it’s that bad.

  • R. Abel, Jr., MD “The Eye Care Revolution” (Kensington Books, 2004) 41-48
  • J. DiGirolamo, MD “The Big Book of Family Eye Care” (Basic Health Publications, Inc. 2011) 71-73
This article was last updated on 02/2013