Eyes Sensitive to Light? Here’s What Your Body’s Trying to Tell You

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Dry eye or a scratch on your cornea may be to blame if your eyes are sensitive to light.
Image Credit: Westend61/Westend61/GettyImages

If your eyes are sensitive to light when you step into the bright sunshine after sitting in a dark movie theater for hours, that's totally normal.

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But if you're always ducking the sunlight like Dracula because it causes severe eye discomfort, you might be dealing with extreme light sensitivity, also known as photophobia.

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Photophobia is often a symptom of some other health issue. And the list of possible causes is long.

That's why we spoke with Ashley Brissette, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), to help shed some light on the issue. Here, we discuss the most common reasons for photophobia and what you can do to manage your light sensitivity.

1. You Have Dry Eye

As if scratchy, red, itchy eyes weren't bad enough, light sensitivity can also be a symptom of dreaded dry eye. This uncomfortable condition happens when your eyes don't make enough tears to stay moist or they don't produce healthy tears.

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Here's the problem: "The eye needs to be well-lubricated and have a uniform surface for us to see clearly," Dr. Brissette says. But if you have dry eye, the eye's surface isn't smooth and consistent. So when light enters your eyes, it disperses, leading to light sensitivity or blurry vision, she explains.

Fix it:​ If your dry eye symptoms are mild, over-the-counter eye drops, moisturizing gels and ointments may be enough to bring relief. In more severe cases, your doctor may recommend prescription eye drops or tear duct plugs (special plugs placed into your tear ducts that help keep your tears in your eyes), according to the National Eye Institute (NEI).

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Tip

Taking breaks from your screen may also help prevent or ease symptoms of dry eye, according to the AAO.

2. You Have a Corneal Abrasion

If you have light sensitivity along with tearing and pain in your eye, the culprit might be a corneal abrasion, or a scratch on the surface of your eye. These little eye cuts may be caused by contact with dust, dirt, sand, wood shavings, metal particles or contact lenses, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The cornea is densely packed with nerve fibers, which can sense pain and are closely linked to light sensitivity, Dr. Brissette says. "In fact, there are hundreds of times more pain receptors in our cornea than there are in our skin," she says.

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Additionally, a corneal abrasion often causes inflammation in the eye, which can also create light sensitivity, Dr. Brissette says.

Fix it:​ If you have a foreign object in your eye, take these steps to wash it out safely, per the Mayo Clinic:

  • Rinse your eye with clean water or a saline solution
  • Blink several times
  • Pull the upper eyelid over the lower eyelid

While most corneal abrasions heal in a day or so, it's still safest to see your eye doctor to make sure it doesn't become infected and turn into something more serious like a corneal ulcer, according to the Mayo Clinic.

3. You Get Migraines

"Over 80 percent of people who have migraines have photophobia," Dr. Brissette says.

Here's why: People with migraines appear to have an overactive occipital lobe, the area of the brain that interprets light and other visual signals, which in turn increases sensitivity to stimulation by light, she says.

Fix it:​ Because blue light seems to trigger migraine and light sensitivity, consider purchasing blue light-filtering eyewear or screen protectors for your devices, per the American Migraine Foundation. Similarly, use lightbulbs that emit green light, which may not aggravate migraine symptoms.

Tip

Limit blue light exposure before bed, as too much of it can get in the way of quality sleep, which can in turn trigger a migraine, according to the Sleep Foundation.

4. You Have Uveitis

Uveitis refers to a group of inflammatory diseases that generates swelling and damages eye tissues, according to the NEI. One of the most common symptoms of uveitis is photophobia, Dr. Brissette says. Again, the eyes contain many nerve fibers, which, when inflamed, can cause light sensitivity.

Sometimes people with uveitis also have underlying inflammation elsewhere in the body caused by autoimmune conditions like lupus, Dr. Brissette says.

Per the NEI, other symptoms of uveitis may include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Dark, floating spots in the vision (floaters)
  • Eye pain
  • Redness of the eye

Fix it:​ If you're experiencing these symptoms, see an ophthalmologist immediately, as uveitis may lead to severe vision loss when left untreated, per the NEI.

5. You Have an Eye Infection

"Similar to corneal abrasions and uveitis, infections cause inflammation, which leads to light sensitivity," Dr. Brissette says.

For example, conjunctivitis — otherwise known as pink eye — is a common eye infection that inflames the conjunctiva (the transparent membrane that lines your eyelid and the white part of your eyeball), according to the Mayo Clinic.

Per the Mayo Clinic, other symptoms of conjunctivitis may include:

  • Redness

  • Itchiness

  • A gritty feeling in one or both eyes

  • Discharge in one or both eyes that forms a crust

  • Tearing

Fix it:​ While uncomfortable, pink eye usually runs its course in two to three weeks. In the meantime, your doctor may recommend using artificial tears, washing your eyelids with a wet cloth and applying cold or warm compresses to decrease discomfort, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Warning

Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis is very contagious, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequently wash your hands, glasses and any other items that come into contact with your eyes to avoid spreading it.

6. You’re Taking Certain Medications

Oddly enough, light sensitivity may be a side effect of certain medications. For instance, some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines, allergy medications, antibiotics, acne medications and diuretic drugs can contribute to light-induced sensitivity, according to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

Per the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, common medications with this effect include:

  • Pain relievers like ibuprofen
  • Antihistamines like astemizole and meclizine
  • Estrogen medications like estradiol
  • Diuretics containing thiazide

Fix it:​ Speak to your doctor, who may be able to adjust your medication dosage or prescribe another drug that doesn't produce photophobia.

7. You Have a Concussion

"Although not fully understood, traumatic brain injuries like concussions are commonly associated with light sensitivity," Dr. Brissette says. The theory is that irritation or injury of pain-sensitive structures in the brain leads to photophobia, she says.

Along with light sensitivity, people with concussions also commonly complain of headaches, Dr. Brissette says. Here are other possible symptoms of a concussion, per the Mayo Clinic.

  • Ringing in the ears
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Blurry vision
  • Confusion or feeling as if in a fog
  • Amnesia surrounding the event that caused the injury (like a fall or blow to the head)
  • Dizziness or "seeing stars"

Fix it​: Keep in mind that signs of a concussion may not surface until hours or days after an injury. If you've recently hit your head and are experiencing some of these symptoms, seek medical care immediately.

Tip

If you have a concussion, it's also important to rest and refrain from exercise that aggravates your symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.

8. You Have Albinism

People with albinism can also experience photophobia, Dr. Brissette says.

Albinism is a group of rare inherited disorders that are characterized by little or no production of the pigment melanin, which affects the color of the skin, hair and eyes, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Because melanin is also important for the development of certain optical nerves, albinism causes eye problems, per the NIH.

Dr. Brissette puts it this way: The pigments in the eye help absorb wavelengths of light, so people with reduced pigmentation will experience issues with light absorption and thus have increased sensitivity to bright light.

Fix it:​ Protect your eyes. Avoid long stints in the sun and wear sunglasses with UV protection, per the NIH.

Are Blue Eyes More Sensitive to Light?

Similarly, people with blue eyes may be more sensitive to light because there's less pigmentation to absorb incoming wavelengths compared to people with brown or dark eyes, according to Duke Health.

9. You Have Another Underlying Health Condition

In addition to albinism, other medical conditions could also be to blame for your photophobia. For example, blepharospasm, progressive supranuclear palsy, fibromyalgia and strokes can make someone more sensitive to light, per the RNIB.

While the reasons for this aren't fully known, "many causes of light sensitivity may in fact be mediated by the brain rather than the eyes," Dr. Brissette says.

Fix it:​ Speak with your doctor, who can perform an evaluation and help you get to the root of the problem.

Tips for Managing Light Sensitivity

While you can't control all the causes of light sensitivity, you can limit its effects by employing these strategies to decrease eye discomfort. Here's how:

1. See an Ophthalmologist

Again, the first line of defense against photophobia is uncovering any underlying health or medical issue. Your doctor can help determine what's causing your light sensitivity and treat your condition accordingly, Dr. Brissette says.

2. Wear Sunglasses

When outdoors, sport shades with UV protection. Just don't wear them inside.

"This can make your eyes more sensitive to lights, as it may cause your eyes to adapt to dimmer conditions," Dr. Brissette says.

3. Try Tinted Glasses

Glasses with the FL-41 tint (which has a pinkish hue) block blue-green wavelengths, which may help with light sensitivity, Dr. Brissette says. Try the TheraSpecs Audrey glasses (Amazon.com, $119) to give your eyes a break from blue light.

4. Use Artificial Tears

Artificial tears can lubricate the surface of your eyes and help keep them more comfortable, Dr. Brissette says. Stick to preservative-free varieties, as additives may cause irritation in some people.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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