Light Sensitivity: Causes and Cures for Photophobia

It is a natural response to squint when moving from a dim setting into the bright light of the sun. For example, if you step out of a building into the mid-day sunlight, your eyes have a natural response to limit the amount of sunlight that is allowed into the eye. The eyelids tighten down and the pupils change in size to manage the light exposure within the inner areas of the eye.
Photophobia is an eye condition that causes symptoms beyond a normal response to bright lights. This form of light sensitivity can bother a patient to the point where daily activities are disrupted.

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What is Photophobia?

Photophobia (also known as light sensitivity) is a medical term that refers to intolerance of light. Any source of light can result in visual discomfort, including sunlight, incandescent light, and fluorescent light. While many patients with photophobia are only bothered by bright lights, severe cases can cause irritation with any level of light exposure.
When a person with light sensitivity is exposed to the light, there is an automatic response to squint or close the eyes completely. Some people experience other symptoms and reactions, such as headaches.

A mild case of photophobia causes a temporary reaction when in a brightly lit room or outside. But severe cases of light sensitivity can hurt, and result in medical emergencies due to the extreme pain experienced when exposed to any type of light.

What Causes Light Sensitivity?

Keep in mind that photophobia isn’t an eye disease. This symptom is often an indication of other eye conditions causing irritation in the eyes, such as inflammation or infection. Light sensitivity can also occur with other health conditions that don’t affect the eyes directly, such as migraines or viral infections.

Certain risk factors increase the likelihood of a person experiencing light sensitivity:

  • Migraines
  • Uveitis
  • Corneal abrasion
  • Meningitis
  • Central nervous system disorders
  • Detached retina
  • Refractive surgery
  • Irritation from contact lenses
  • Sunburn
  • Mercury poisoning
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Rabies
  • Botulism

Also, people with lighter eye colors are at a higher risk of experiencing light sensitivity. Darker-colored eyes have more pigment compared to lighter-colored eyes. The increased amount of pigment can provide protection against bright lighting.

Additionally, the use of certain medications can make a person’s eyes more sensitive to light, such as tetracycline, belladonna, quinine, doxycycline, and furosemide.

Also, people with lighter eye colors are at a higher risk of experiencing light sensitivity. Darker-colored eyes have more pigment compared to lighter-colored eyes. The increased amount of pigment can provide protection against bright lighting.

Additionally, the use of certain medications can make a person’s eyes more sensitive to light, such as tetracycline, belladonna, quinine, doxycycline, and furosemide.

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How Can Photophobia Be Alleviated or Cured?

Since light sensitivity is a symptom of another health condition, the most effective approach is to treat the underlying cause. First, the cause needs to be identified by an experienced medical professional, then a personalized treatment plan can be designed to manage the health condition. In many cases, when the triggering factor is managed, then photophobia goes away.

For example, your treatment plan might include:

  • Medication Changes: If you are using a medication that causes a side effect of light sensitivity, then you can talk to your doctor about other treatment options. Changing dosage or medication usage can help by eliminating your sensitivity to light.
  • Antibiotics: An infection or corneal abrasion can be treated using antibiotic eye drops. Oral antibiotics are used for bacterial meningitis. 
  • Anti-Inflammatory Treatments: When inflammation is affecting light sensitivity, then the inflammation can be managed with medication. For example, scleritis patients can use eye drops that decrease inflammation in the eye. Or, people with encephalitis can take oral anti-inflammatory medications.
  • Surgery: If the underlying cause of light sensitivity is a subarachnoid hemorrhage, then the pressure in the brain can be relieved by removing excess blood through surgery. 

Managing Light Sensitivity

When you know that you will be exposed to light, it is important to be proactive with immediate treatment options to manage the symptoms:

  • When possible, avoid harsh indoor lighting and bright sunlight. 
  • Carry a wide-brimmed hat to shield the eyes when spending time in the sun. 
  • Use sunglasses with ultraviolet (UV) protection. Polarized sunglasses can also be beneficial since they offer extra protection against glare from reflective surfaces such as snow, water, sand, and concrete.
  • If you wear eyeglasses, talk to your eye doctor about photochromic lenses that get darker when exposed to light
  • Patients with extreme light sensitivity might consider using contact lenses designed to reduce the amount of light that enters the eye

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Should You Seek Medical Care?

If you have minor light sensitivity, then you can likely self-manage with sunglasses and avoid brightly lit areas. But it is important to note that light sensitivity could be a symptom of an underlying health concern. So, it’s recommended that you schedule an appointment with an eye doctor to rule out any serious conditions. 

Certain conditions that cause light sensitivity are medical emergencies. If you notice that the light sensitivity occurs with other sudden and severe symptoms, then it is recommended that you seek medical treatment immediately. Coinciding symptoms vary, depending on the underlying condition. Talk to an eye doctor as soon as possible if your light sensitivity occurs with any of the following symptoms:

  • Corneal Abrasion: Blurred vision, redness in the eyes, burning or pain, a sensation that something is in the eye.
  • Encephalitis: Fever, severe headache, confusion, difficulty waking up.
  • Meningitis: Nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, severe headache, chills, fever.
  • Subarachnoid Hemorrhage: Severe and sudden headache, numbness in the body, reduced awareness, confusion, irritability. 

Not only should you be aware of your own light sensitivity, but you might notice signs that family members need to visit an eye doctor. For example, if your child often says “the light hurts my eyes” when spending time outside, it could be an indication of an underlying problem.

Find a Local Eye Doctor

Talking with an experienced doctor is critical so you can identify the underlying cause of photophobia. This light sensitivity is an indication that you might have another health condition that needs to be treated. In some cases, it can be easy to alleviate the symptoms of light sensitivity by treating the underlying cause.

Whether you are experiencing light sensitivity or you have other questions about improving your eyesight, you can find a local eye specialist for help. At LasikPlus, we make it easy to find a trusted eye care provider in your area for LASIK surgery and other eye treatments. You are invited to schedule an appointment. Or call our team to find a provider in your area: 1.866.755.2026.

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