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Sensitivity to Light

How to know when light sensitivity is caused by something as mild as dry eye or as serious as retinal detachment.
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Last updated April 28, 2021

Sensitivity to light questionnaire

Answer our clinicians’ questions to learn if your sensitivity to light is serious and get a migraines refills treatment prescription for $25 if necessary.

Sensitivity to light questionnaire

Answer our clinicians’ questions to learn if your sensitivity to light is serious and get a migraines refills treatment prescription for $25 if necessary.

See sensitivity to light treatment options

Only available in: CA, NY, TX, FL, IL, NC, PA, OH, MI, and WA

Sensitivity to light, called photophobia, is a relatively common problem that can range from mild to severe. It’s when light seems too bright and makes you squint, but it can also be irritating or cause pain in people who are sensitive to it.

Sensitivity to light can be caused simply by eye strain or dry eyes, or by issues like eye infections, eye injuries, or problems with the structure of the eye. People with a lighter eye color are more likely to have light sensitivity because darker-colored eyes contain more pigment to protect against harsh lighting.

It can also be a side effect of certain medications, or a symptom of allergies, hangover, or brain or nervous system disorders such as migraine. It can also occur as we age.

You can reduce light sensitivity by avoiding bright light, using eye drops, or wearing sunglasses indoors. But you should see your eye doctor to determine the underlying cause if these steps do not help your problem.

Some causes of this sensitivity may lead to further problems with your eyes or vision if they aren’t treated, while others are so serious that you need to go to the ER.

Causes

1. Dry eye

Symptoms

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Eye pain
  • Feeling that something is in your eye
  • Red eyes
  • Itchy eyes
  • Blurred vision

The most common cause of sensitivity to light is dry eye. Triggers of dry eyes include getting older and changes in hormone levels. People who have conditions such as Sjogren’s syndrome and Parkinson’s disease may have increased risk of dry eye disease.

Dry eye can also be a side effect of some medications, such as antidepressants, allergy medications, and chemotherapy drugs.

Your eye doctor can diagnose dry eye disease. Treatment may include changing medications that are causing light sensitivity, wearing special contact lenses, and using over-the-counter eye drops. In some cases, your doctor may recommend procedures that treat dry eye, such as closing your tear ducts to reduce tear loss or unblocking the small oil glands on the edge of your eyelids.

Pro Tip

Sensitivity to light isn’t something you should just deal with on your own. It can be a warning sign of an eye problem that needs treatment, so it’s definitely worth discussing with your doctor. —Dr. Karen Hoerst

2. Migraine

Symptoms

  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Aura (changes in how you sense light and sound)
  • Head pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Tingling or numbness in the body

Another common cause of light sensitivity is migraine. This is a neurological condition that causes moderate to severe headaches. Migraines can occur once in a while or be chronic (occurring at least 15 days a month).

Light can be very painful and worsen headaches during a migraine, and may be a trigger in some people.

Other triggers include hormonal changes, stress, and weather changes. Certain foods and drinks such as alcohol, caffeinated beverages, aged cheese, and salty and processed foods can also trigger migraines.

Treatments for migraine may include over-the-counter or prescription medication that reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches. These medications may be taken orally or via nasal spray or injection. There are also drugs that prevent migraine headaches (such as Botox injections) and others that treat migraine headaches when they occur, such as triptans.

3. Eye strain

Symptoms

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sore eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Tense neck or shoulders
  • Difficulty keeping your eyes open

Eye strain occurs when your eyes get tired from overuse. It can be caused by exhaustion or when you have to focus on one area for long periods of time, like when you’re driving or using your computer. Eye strain caused by too much screen time is called digital eye strain. A study in the British Medical Journal Open Ophthalmology notes that at least 50% of computer users have experienced it at some point.

Symptoms of eye strain usually go away once you’ve rested your eyes. You can prevent digital eye strain by avoiding prolonged screen time, taking scheduled breaks from computer or phone use, changing the brightness of your device, and ensuring the text size is large enough to read without difficulty.

Sensitivity to light questionnaire

Answer our clinicians’ questions to learn if your sensitivity to light is serious and get a migraines refills treatment prescription for $25 if necessary.

See sensitivity to light treatment options

Only available in: CA, NY, TX, FL, IL, NC, PA, OH, MI, and WA

4. Blepharitis (inflamed eyelid)

Symptoms

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Red, swollen eyelids
  • Itchy eyelids
  • Dandruff-like flakes at the base of your eyelids
  • Eyelashes that grow abnormally or fall out easily
  • Feeling that something is in your eye

Blepharitis, or eyelid inflammation, is an irritation of the rim or margin of the eyelid. It can be caused by makeup, skin conditions such as psoriasis, or an infection of the skin at the base of the eyelashes (caused by bacteria or eyelash mites or lice).

Blepharitis can also be triggered by inflammation or clogs in the oil glands in your eyelids, which can be painful and irritate the eye.

Blepharitis should always be treated by your doctor. Without proper care, it can become chronic and lead to infections of the eyelids and cornea, dry eyes that can’t tolerate contact lenses, and scarring and deformity of the eyelids.

Treatment for most causes of blepharitis includes washing the eyelid and lashes regularly, using over-the-counter eye wipes, applying warm compresses, and not using any makeup or other products that might be worsening your symptoms.

If these don’t work, your doctor may recommend other treatments, such as prescription eye drops that contain antibiotics or oral antibiotics.

5. Conjunctivitis (pink eye)

Symptoms

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Feeling that something is in your eye
  • A “gritty” feeling in your eye
  • Red eyes
  • Discharge from your eye that may be watery or filled with pus
  • Eye pain

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, which covers the surface of your eyes. The conjunctiva is usually clear, but it can appear reddish-pink when it’s inflamed. This is why conjunctivitis is called “pink eye.”

Causes of conjunctivitis include viral or bacterial infections of the eyes, allergies, a foreign object in your eye, or a chemical that splashed in your eye. Conjunctivitis caused by a virus or bacteria can often spread from one person to another. This is particularly common in school-aged children.

Treatment may include prescription eye drops and applying cold or warm compresses to your eyes several times a day. Viral conjunctivitis goes away on its own, but some forms of bacterial conjunctivitis may need to be treated with antibiotics.

6. Keratitis (cornea infection)

Symptoms

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Eye redness
  • Eye pain
  • Feeling that something is in your eye
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty opening your eyes

Keratitis is inflammation of the cornea, which is the clear layer on the front of your eye that covers your pupil and iris. It can be caused by viral or bacterial infections, an eye injury, a foreign body in your eye, and wearing your contact lenses for too long.

If an infection is suspected, your doctor may also take a swab sample to determine what type of infection you may have.

Treatment of keratitis may include antibiotics and other medications such as eye drops to help your symptoms and reduce inflammation. It’s important to follow your doctor’s treatment plan—which will include not wearing contacts for a period of time—because not doing so may increase the risk of permanent damage to your cornea, scarring, and vision loss.

7. Corneal abrasion

Symptoms

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurry vision
  • Feeling that something is in your eye
  • Redness
  • Eye discharge

A corneal abrasion is a particularly painful, superficial scratch on your cornea. Most corneal abrasions are caused by an eye injury or a foreign body in your eye (like sand or dirt), but they can also develop if you have dry eye or are using your contact lenses incorrectly.

See your doctor if you think you have a corneal abrasion or have injured your eye. Left untreated, it can progress to a corneal ulcer and permanently damage your vision.

If a foreign object caused the abrasion, your doctor will remove it. Treatments may include moisturizing eye drops or ointment, antibiotic eye drops or ointments, and wearing an eyepatch temporarily. In some cases, surgery may be needed to smooth the surface of the cornea.

8. Scleritis

Symptoms

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Severe eye pain
  • Eye inflammation
  • Tearing
  • Deep eye ache that may extend into your face and head

Scleritis is inflammation of the whites of your eye. It’s usually seen in people with autoimmune disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Left untreated, scleritis may lead to blindness.

Treatment may include corticosteroid pills, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen), eye solutions, antibiotics, prescription medication, and immunosuppressive drugs. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to save your vision.

9. Torn retina or retinal detachment

Symptoms

  • Sensitivity to light
  • “Floaters” appearing in your field of vision
  • Narrowing field of vision
  • Blurred vision

Retinal detachment occurs when the retina tears or detaches from the back of the eye. The retina contains light-sensitive cells that organize visual information and send it to your brain. You may not experience pain with retinal detachment, but you will be sensitive to light.

A retinal detachment is considered an emergency and should be treated immediately to prevent permanent vision loss. If you experience sudden loss of vision, you should go to the ER immediately. Surgery is usually necessary to repair a torn or detached retina. It may improve your vision, though some people never fully recover their vision.

Sensitivity to light questionnaire

Answer our clinicians’ questions to learn if your sensitivity to light is serious and get a migraines refills treatment prescription for $25 if necessary.

See sensitivity to light treatment options

Only available in: CA, NY, TX, FL, IL, NC, PA, OH, MI, and WA

10. Encephalitis or meningitis

Symptoms

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Fever
  • Seizure
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Neck stiffness
  • Difficulty moving

Encephalitis and meningitis are inflammations of the brain. Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain tissue and meningitis is an inflammation of the surface coverings of the brain (meninges). Both can be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other inflammatory conditions. In some instances, both encephalitis and meningitis occur at the same time.

Some cases are mild, with the only symptoms being a headache and light sensitivity. But more severe cases are serious and can be fatal. If you have a mild headache and light sensitivity, you should see your doctor.

Go to the ER if your symptoms are severe or occur with other symptoms such as confusion, seizures, or difficulty moving.

Diagnosis of meningitis and encephalitis is made based on your symptoms, brain imaging tests, and other blood tests. Often, a lumbar puncture or spinal tap test is needed to examine the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord to look for infection or inflammation.

Treatment may include antiviral or antibiotic treatments and medications to manage symptoms, such as anticonvulsant medication.

Other possible causes

A number of other conditions can cause light sensitivity:

  • Traumatic brain injuries (TBI), including concussions
  • Temporal arteritis
  • Rabies
  • Depression and other nervous system disorders or brain disorders

When to call the doctor

It’s important to see a doctor right away for any new or worsening sensitivity to light. This is because not all cases of light sensitivity will go away on their own and you may have an underlying condition that needs treatment. See your doctor if you have:

  • A feeling that something is in your eye
  • Eye discharge
  • Eye redness

Dr. Rx

If you are having any abrupt change in your vision, this an eye emergency and treat it as such. If you can’t see your personal doctor or eye doctor immediately, you generally need to go to the emergency department. There are a lot of problems that can occur with your eye, and most are treatable, but only if you have appropriate evaluation done at the right time. —Dr. Hoerst

Should I go to the ER for sensitivity to light?

Go to the ER if you have sensitivity to light and:

Treatment

Pro Tip

Ask your doctor what you should be doing at home to help treat your problem. Review any over-the-counter drops you are using with your doctor. Also review how you are using your contact lenses to be sure you’re not putting yourself at higher risk of eye problems. —Dr. Hoerst

At-home treatment

If light sensitivity is mild and isn’t causing other problems such as change in vision, your doctor may recommend treating it by:

  • Resting
  • Wearing sunglasses
  • Using over-the-counter eye drops
  • Applying warm compresses

Your doctor may also recommend an at-home treatment plan if you experience light sensitivity caused by migraine, allergies, or dry eye.

Other possible treatments

  • Prescription medications, including eye drops with antibiotics or steroids
  • Pain medication
  • Surgery
Share your story
Dr. Hoerst is a board-certified Neurologist. She received her undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Scranton in 2005 and Jefferson Medical College (now Sidney Kimmel Medical College) in 2009. She completed an internal medicine internship, neurology residency and vascular neurology fellowship at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia (2014). After completing her...
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