What Is Photophobia?

Photophobia literally means "fear of light." If you have photophobia, you're not actually afraid of light, but you are very sensitive to it. The sun or bright indoor light can be uncomfortable, even painful.

Photophobia isn't a condition -- it's a symptom of another problem. Migraine headaches, dry eyes, and swelling inside your eye are commonly linked to light sensitivity.

It can cause pain whenever you're in bright sunlight or indoor light. You might want to blink or close your eyes. Some people also get headaches.

Causes

Photophobia is linked to the connection between cells in your eyes that detect light and a nerve that goes to your head.

Migraines are the most common cause of light sensitivity. Up to 80% of people who get them have photophobia along with their headaches. Many of those people are light sensitive even when they don't have a headache.

Other types of headaches can cause photophobia, too. People who get tension and cluster headaches also say they're uncomfortable around bright light.

A few brain conditions can cause photophobia, including:

  • Meningitis (swelling of the protective coverings of your brain and spinal cord)
  • Serious brain injury
  • Supranuclear palsy (a brain disorder that causes problems with balance, walking, and eye movement)
  • Tumors in your pituitary gland

Some eye diseases cause this symptom, including:

  • Dry eye
  • Uveitis (swelling of the inside of your eye)
  • Keratitis (swelling of your cornea, the clear layer that covers the colored part of your eye)
  • Iritis (swelling of the colored ring around your pupil)
  • Cataracts (cloudy coverings over the lenses of your eyes)
  • Corneal abrasion (a scratch on your cornea)
  • Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the conjunctiva, the clear tissue that sits over the white part of your eye)
  • Damage to your retina, the light-sensitive layer in the back of your eye
  • Blepharospasm (a condition that makes your eyelids close uncontrollably)

Photophobia may also affect some people who have these mental health conditions:

You can also get photophobia after you have LASIK or other surgery to fix vision problems.

Certain wavelengths of light -- like the blue light your computer and smartphone give off -- cause the most sensitivity.

Some medicines can also cause photophobia, including:

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Diagnosis

If you think you have photophobia, see your eye doctor. She'll ask about your symptoms and any medical conditions you have. Then she'll check the health of your eyes and possibly your brain.

Tests your doctor might use include:

  • Slit-lamp eye exam. She'll use a special microscope with a light to examine your eyes.
  • MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging.This uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make detailed pictures of your eyes.
  • Exam of the tear film. This checks the amount of tears you make to see if you have dry eyes.

Treatment

The best way to ease photophobia is to treat the condition or stop taking the medicine that's causing it.

If you're still affected by it, tinted glasses may help. Some people have found relief from rose-colored lenses called FL-41.

But tinted lenses aren't for everyone. They can make some people even more sensitive to light, so talk with your doctor about what's best for you.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on January 23, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Ophthalmology: "Photophobia: Looking for Causes and Solutions."

American Migraine Foundation: "Photophobia -- What is It? Can It Be Treated?"

Eye Care Trust: "Photophobia."

Mayo Clinic: "Slit lamp examination."

Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology: "Shedding Light on Photophobia."

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