Light sensitivity, also called photophobia, is a condition in which a person feels discomfort or pain when their eyes are exposed to light. The severity and length of photophobia depend on the person and the underlying condition causing it, with some people struggling even with very mild lights. (Learn More)

Many things can cause light sensitivity. Most people associate it with migraines, but a variety of eye conditions and even things not often associated with the eyes, like meningitis and certain drugs, may lead to the issue. Identifying the cause with the help of a doctor is the first step to major relief. (Learn More)

While almost any kind of light can hurt photophobic eyes depending on the individual, it is flickering lights, bright lights, and blue lights that cause the most issues. Dim, warmer lights are often a good alternative to the light produced by the sun, bright fluorescent bulbs, and many electronics. (Learn More)

Mild light sensitivity, such as what some people get when ill, can be helped with consistent exposure to gradually increasing levels of light. Additionally, some users find tinted lenses can help control their photophobia as well, although this is not always the case.

If your pain is moderate or greater, or it lasts longer than two days, you should see a doctor. Additional symptoms, such as headaches, blurred vision, or red eye, also warrant a doctor’s visit. Your pain may be more serious than you assume. (Learn More)

Treating moderate to severe photophobia often requires management of your environment. Wear a hat indoors, switch out lights that are bright or flickering for warm lights, and avoid light when possible if your pain is especially severe. There may be a more serious problem underlying the light sensitivity, so it’s important to see a doctor to rule this out. (Learn More)

Light Sensitivity

eyes squinting from the sun

Light sensitivity, or photophobia, is when a person experiences discomfort or pain in their eyes when looking at lights.

Photophobia can be mild to quite severe, depending on the individual and the root cause of their pain. Some people struggle with photophobia even when exposed to very little light. Just because a room seems relatively dark does not necessarily mean a person who is photophobic will be comfortable.

Depending on what is causing your photophobia, you may find the condition goes away on its own. If you experience photophobia chronically, especially if you have no explanation, you should contact a doctor. Chronic photophobia can sometimes be a sign that something is seriously wrong with your eyes, and it may worsen with time.

What Causes Light Sensitivity?

While most commonly associated with migraines, there are many other potential causes of light sensitivity.

  • Recovering from eye surgery
  • Wearing contacts that are ill-fitting or wearing them for too long
  • Inflammation of the eye
  • Burns to the eye
  • Corneal abrasions
  • Corneal ulcers
  • Eye dilation, such as when getting your eyes tested
  • Meningitis
  • Certain drugs, including amphetamines, vidarabine, atropine, phenylephrine, cocaine, scopolamine, cyclopentolate, idoxuridine, tropicamide, and trifluridine
  • Eye disease or injury

Getting to the root cause of your photophobia is the first step to fixing the problem. While the ways to treat the pain itself remain largely the same (discussed more below), actually treating the cause can potentially help to end your photophobia for good.

What Kind of Light Can Hurt Your Eyes?

While any light can potentially cause pain in someone with photophobia, there are a few factors about a given light that can make it more irritating and painful.

  • Flickering and flashing: Visual contrast can cause eye pain in those who are sensitive. The flashing and flickering of a light, with an area becoming rapidly dark and then light again, can be painful to look at.
  • Brightness: As many people with photophobia quickly learn, brighter lights cause more pain. This is unsurprising, as even people without photophobia can get their eyes hurt (in some cases permanently) by extremely bright lights. Sensitive photophobic eyes have a much lower threshold they can tolerate before feeling pain.
  • Color of light: Blue light is the harshest on the eyes, and it also tends to be the brightest. Blue light is present in natural light too, notably the sun. Many electronic devices produce use blue light too.

photophobia

Treating Mild Light Sensitivity

While it may seem counterintuitive, the American Migraine Foundation notes that keeping yourself in darkness is a bad habit to get into if you are photophobic. Consistent exposure to light, slowly raising the amount of light as you grow more tolerant, can improve symptoms.

This does not mean the pain should be agonizing. Raise the general light levels you deal with at a pace you can still handle without serious discomfort. Closing your eyes to rest them occasionally can help to temporarily relieve the pain.

Avoid direct sunlight unless necessary. The sun is usually one of the brightest things we encounter in our day-to-day life, and it can cause serious eye pain in people with photophobia.

Experimenting with tinted lenses, which block light, can help some (but not all) people with photophobia. Ideally, find the mildest tint that still helps you control your symptoms.

If your symptoms are still having a notably negative impact after trying the above for a day or two, you should see a doctor. There is the potential for a more serious problem to be present, and some solutions require a doctor’s help.

If your sensitivity is accompanied by headaches, blurred vision, or red eye, see a doctor. Even if the individual symptoms are manageable, these co-occurring symptoms are usually a sign of a deeper issue.

Treating Moderate to Severe Light Sensitivity

man with sunglasses on

When in moderate to severe photophobic pain, there are a few additional measures you can try to manage the pain.

  • Wear a hat indoors to reduce the light entering your eyes.
  • Replace any flickering or damaged lights in your house.
  • Remove all fluorescent light bulbs in your home, as their light can be especially painful.
  • Actively rest your eyes, keeping them closed for minutes at a time.
  • Avoid electronics use when possible. Adjust settings to allow for reduced light.
  • Get in dark conditions, as close to darkness as possible. While this is not a good idea for mild photophobic pain, it is sometimes necessary for those dealing with severe pain.

If your pain is at this high level, it is time to see a doctor. The doctor may perform the following tests to identify the cause of the pain:

  • Pupil dilation
  • Corneal scraping
  • Lumbar puncture
  • Slit-lamp exam

Some of these tests can be uncomfortable, especially if you are already dealing with eye pain. But they can greatly help to reduce pain in the long run if the cause is discovered.

Be clear and honest with your doctor. Let them know if you’ve experienced any damage to your eyes, had any chemicals around them (including soaps and lotions), if anything affects your sensitivity, and how much pain you’re in.

References

Photophobia. (May 10, 2017). MedlinePlus.

Photophobia – What Is It? Can It Be Treated? (September 22, 2016). American Migraine Foundation.

Photophobia: Tips for Diagnosis and Management. (2017). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

The Ultimate Guide to Photophobia and Light Sensitivity. (November 8, 2018). TheraSpecs Company.