Read below about sensitivity to light, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your sensitivity to light from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

This symptom can also be referred to as:
Photophobia

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Sensitivity to Light Symptoms

Sensitivity to light is a common symptom – sometimes the first symptom – of trouble with your eyes. [15] Aversion to light is actually the eye's way of protecting itself when it is injured or infected, because your eye has a better chance of healing itself when at rest. [25]

Sensitivity to light, or photophobia, means intolerance to light – not the fear of it. [24]

Characteristics:

  • Pain or discomfort in your eyes while you're in the presence of almost any light source, from bright sun to glaring fluorescents to normal household incandescent light. [25]
  • Squinting, closing your eyes, and turning your head away from all but the lowest light. [25]
  • Staying in darkened rooms. [24]
  • Wearing dark sunglasses and sunhats if you go outside. [25]
  • Headache. [25]
  • Nausea. [26]
  • Excessive tear production. [15]
  • Finding it difficult to work, since most jobs require bright light. [10]

Duration:

  • The steps you take to ease your sensitivity – avoiding bright light, wearing sunglasses indoors, etc. – can actually make the condition worse by lessening your tolerance to light even more and prolonging it indefinitely. [23]
  • Sensitivity to light symptoms will not resolve until the underlying cause is treated. [23]

Who is most often affected by sensitivity to light symptoms?

  • If you have light-colored eyes – which cannot block the light as well – you are more likely to be affected than those with darker eyes. [11]
  • If you have albinism, you will be overly sensitive to light. [27]
  • Anyone with any condition that results in "dry eye." [24]

Where in the world are these sensitivity to light symptoms most common?

  • Warm, humid regions have more people swimming while wearing contact lenses, especially in rivers, lakes, and seas, and thus being more susceptible to eye infection and injury. [5]
  • Being sensitive to light can be most difficult in very bright and sunny places, of course, though it can happen anywhere. [25]

When are sensitivity to light symptoms most likely to occur? The daylight hours will be the most troublesome, but artificial lights are bright and ever-present – especially if you work a night job. [25]

Are sensitivity to light symptoms serious?

  • Sensitivity to light due to mild allergy or mild illness is not serious, as long as it clears on its own once the allergy or illness has resolved. [27]
  • A chronic case can interfere with activities of daily living and quality of life, making both working and socializing increasingly difficult. [25,27]
  • A severe case may be a symptom of more serious illness and can lead to loss of vision. [5,8]

Sensitivity to Light Causes

Many conditions can have sensitivity to light as a symptom. Most of those are things that cause dry eye, which is the primary reason for photophobia. [1]

Sensitivity to light is most often caused by an infectious disease:

  • Bacterial infections which cause inflammation in any part of your eye, from the outer eyelids to the inner structures. [2]
  • Viral infections:

    • Those that infect only your eye. [3]
    • Systemic viral infections affecting your entire body that make you generally feel ill while also causing eye symptoms. [4]
  • Fungal infections of the cornea. [5]
  • Parasitic infections of the cornea. [6]

Less common causes of sensitivity to light:

  • Conditions that allow too much light into your eye:

    • Inability of your pupil to close properly, from corneal abrasion and retinal damage or from damage to the oculomotor nerve. [7,8,9]
    • Lack of pigment in your iris, especially with albinism. [10]
    • Having no iris at all. [11]
    • Pupillary dilation. This may be natural or may be artificially done for an eye examination. [7]
  • Injury:

    • An abrasion, laceration, foreign body, or chemical injury to the cornea. [12]
    • Bleeding within the eye. [13]
    • Retinal detachment. [14]
    • Scarring of your cornea or sclera, either from disease or injury. [15]

Progressive, hereditary, and autoimmune conditions can all cause sensitivity to light symptoms:

  • Progressive eye disorders slowly cause deformity and loss of function in the structures of your eye. [15]
  • Hereditary conditions cause malformation of eye structures, or the structures may be missing altogether. [15]
  • Autoimmune disorders cause the body to turn against itself and damage its own structures. [3]

Other general sensitivity to light cause types:

  • Allergies, because they cause very dry and irritated eyes. [3]

  • Medications, most commonly:

    • Anticholinergic drugs, which impact the iris sphincter muscle. [16]
    • Benzodiazepines, especially after long use. [17]
    • Withdrawal from many kinds of drugs. [18]
    • Chemotherapy. [19]
  • Nutritional deficiencies:

    • Magnesium deficiency. [20]
    • Deficiency of riboflavin (vitamin B2.) [20]
  • Nervous system disorders:

    • Autism spectrum, due to difficulty processing sensory information. [22]
    • The post-ictal state following a seizure. [21]
  • Brain disorders:

    • Severe headache and other forms of head pain. [23]
    • Damage and/or bleeding within the brain from trauma, [22] hemorrhage, [14] tumor, [14] or congenital malformation. [15]

9 Possible Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced sensitivity to light. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

  1. 1.Inflamed Eyelid (Blepharitis)

    Blepharitis is an eyelid issue where the skin, lashes, or glands become inflamed from an irritant or infection.

    Treatment and preventative measures may successfully control blepharitis.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    eye itch, sensitivity to light, eye redness, feeling of something in the eye, dry eyes
    Symptoms that never occur with inflamed eyelid (blepharitis):
    severe eye pain
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  2. 2.Recurrent Migraine

    Migraines are headaches of moderate to severe intensity, which happen when blood vessels in the brain swell up. They are episodic and thus can recur often. Most migraine sufferers experience increased sensitivity to sounds and/or lights and become nauseous and vomit.

    Migraine symptoms may resolve within a day or two, but the condition can come and go for a year or more. If any particular episode is unusually severe or does not respond to your customary treatments, you may want to see a doctor urgently.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    headache, history of headaches, fatigue, nausea, mild headache
    Symptoms that always occur with recurrent migraine:
    headache, history of headaches
    Symptoms that never occur with recurrent migraine:
    fever, headache resulting from a head injury
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  3. 3.Sarcoidosis

    Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease that most often affects the lungs and skin, but can als affect the joints.

    This condition has a broad range of severity. It often goes away on its own over time but some cases can cause permanent damage.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, joint pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  4. 4.Subarachnoid Hemorrhage

    Subarachnoid hemorrhage is bleeding in the area between the brain and the thin tissues that cover the brain. It's typically caused by a ruptured aneurysm (out-pouching of an artery's wall).

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    new headache, being severely ill, nausea or vomiting, severe headache, vision changes
    Symptoms that always occur with subarachnoid hemorrhage:
    new headache, being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service

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  5. 5.Hangover

    Hangovers occur after consuming alcohol. People often wake up the morning after a night of drinking feeling a general feeling of sickness and fatigue. The unpleasant symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, and dehydration.

    No more than 12 hours

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    abdominal pain (stomach ache), fatigue, nausea or vomiting, headache, diarrhea
    Symptoms that never occur with hangover:
    being severely ill, fever
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  6. 6.Concussion Not Needing Imaging

    A traumatic brain injury (TBI), or concussion, happens when a bump, blow, jolt, or other head injury causes damage to the brain. Every year, millions of people in the U.S. suffer brain injuries. More than half are bad enough that people must go to the hospital, and the worst injuries can lead to permanent brain damage or death.

    Most patients with mild brain injury recover within hours to days.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, irritability, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping
    Symptoms that always occur with concussion not needing imaging:
    head or face injury
    Symptoms that never occur with concussion not needing imaging:
    recent fall from 6 feet or higher, severe vomiting, posttraumatic amnesia over 30 minutes, slurred speech, fainting, moderate vomiting
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.New Migraine

    Migraines are headaches of moderate to severe intensity, which happen when blood vessels in the brain swell up. They are episodic and thus can recur often. Most migraine sufferers experience increased sensitivity to sounds and/or lights and become nauseous and vomit.

    Migraine symptoms may resolve within a day or two, but the condition can come and go for a year or more. If any particular episode is unusually severe or does not respond to your customary treatments, you may want to see a doctor urgently.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    new headache, fatigue, nausea, mild headache, headache that worsens when head moves
    Symptoms that always occur with new migraine:
    new headache
    Symptoms that never occur with new migraine:
    fever, diarrhea, productive cough, headache resulting from a head injury
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  8. 8.Aseptic Meningitis

    Aseptic meningitis is a condition in which the layers lining the brain (the meninges) become inflamed and painful but there is no bacterial infection involved. It can be caused by virusses, fungi or medication.

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    headache, nausea, muscle aches, fever, chills
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  9. 9.Bacterial Meningitis

    Meningitis is a bacterial infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord (meninges). It is a serious infection as it may affect the nervous system.

    Meningitis is a very serious disease and recovery is variable.

    Rarity:
    Ultra rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, nausea, being severely ill, fever
    Symptoms that always occur with bacterial meningitis:
    being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service

Sensitivity to Light Treatments, Relief and Prevention

Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if you have:

  • Sudden vision loss in one or both eyes. [28]
  • Sudden and extreme sensitivity to light in one or both eyes, especially if you also have pain in your eye. [28]
  • Any traumatic injury to your eye, even if it seems minor. [28]

Schedule an appointment for:

  • Moderate sensitivity to light in one or both eyes that does not clear up within 24 hours, because this can be a symptom of many different eye problems. [29]
  • Mild sensitivity with other symptoms such as irritation, discharge, or mild eye pain. [27,29]

Sensitivity to Light Remedies that you can try at home:

  • Resting the eye by staying out of bright light and wearing sunglasses or a patch. [25]
  • Cold compresses. [27]
  • Over-the-counter eyedrops may ease dryness and help temporarily. [30]

FAQs About Sensitivity to Light

Here are some frequently asked questions about sensitivity to light.

Can sensitivity to light cause dizziness?

No. Light sensitivity (photophobia) is not known to cause dizziness. [31] More commonly, a single problem will cause dizziness and light sensitivity. Diseases such as multiple sclerosis, [32] and viruses such as herpes [33] or rabies, [34] can cause light sensitivity that will manifest along with other symptoms such as confusion, nausea, or vomiting. [32,33,34] The most common cause of light sensitivity is lack of sleep, and the photophobia commonly dissipates after a good night's rest. [35]

Why am I sensitive to light when I have a headache?

It is unclear why photophobia or sensitivity to light is caused by headaches. Research suggests that inflammation near or involving one of the nerves that supplies sensation to the eyes may cause photophobia. The involved nerve is the trigeminal nerve. This may explain why anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen or other NSAIDs can help treat inflammation of the trigeminal nerve. [33]

Why do I suddenly experience sensitivity to light?

Sudden sensitivity to light can occur following an acute injury to the eye. For example, trauma to the eye by a football or baseball can depress the eye and cause pain and photophobia, as light causes muscles in the eye to constrict and this can cause pain. [3] Additionally, viral illness [3,4] or chemicals [12] that enter the eye can also cause sudden sensitivity to light. Finally, a direct abrasion or scratch of the eye can cause photophobia as well if the eye becomes inflamed. More commonly however, this causes a feeling of "grittiness" in the eye. [5] Photophobia is also a symptom of meningitis but usually with other symptoms such as a stiff neck, nausea, fever or lethargy. [36]

Can dry eyes make you sensitive to light?

Dry eyes do not cause sensitivity to light. (I cannot document this. Most sources say the opposite.) They often cause the sensation of having dirt or some other irritant in the eye. The condition should be managed with external eye drops or a visit to your physician to evaluate for an underlying problem. Dry eyes may cause a person to want to keep their eyes closed to keep them moist and covered, as dry eyes are also more prone to injury. [1,25,30]

Can anxiety cause light sensitivity?

No. Anxiety does not cause light sensitivity. (I cannot document this. Please see [37]) Light sensitivity can be caused by migraine headaches, [25] hangovers, [38] viral illnesses (especially in children), [3,4] meningitis, [25] corneal abrasions, [25] or even inflammation of different parts of the eye by infections (conjunctivitis, [25] keratitis [25] ). Generally, lighter colored eyes may have more natural sensitivity to light than darker colored eyes. [10,11]

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Sensitivity to Light

  • Q.Have you noticed any vision changes?
  • Q.Sometimes, loud noises can trigger a strong discomfort in some people. Do loud noises bother you more than usual?
  • Q.Are you experiencing a headache?
  • Q.Have you experienced any nausea?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our sensitivity to light symptom checker to find out more.

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Sensitivity to Light Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced sensitivity to light have also experienced:

    • 11% Headache
    • 10% Nausea
    • 6% Throbbing Headache
  • People who have experienced sensitivity to light were most often matched with:

    • 50% Sarcoidosis
    • 37% Recurrent Migraine
    • 12% Inflamed Eyelid (Blepharitis)
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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References

  1. Wade M, Reddy M. Symptoms of dry eye disease. The Discovery Eye Foundation. Published August 18, 2015. Discovery Eye Link.
  2. Light sensitivity. UCLA Health. UCLA Health Link.
  3. Levi L, Digre KB, Kardon RH. MD roundtable: Solving the photophobia puzzle. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Published November 2015. AAO Link.
  4. Shelat AM. Viral encephalitis. University of Maryland Medical Center. Updated May 20, 2017. UMMS Link.
  5. Bishop S. With prompt treatment, cornea infection can be cured without long-term complications. Mayo Clinic. Published October 22, 2010. Mayo Clinic Link.
  6. Rush IR. Parasite can blind unwary contact lens wearers. Keratoconus Australia. Published August 24, 2015. Keratoconus Link.
  7. Dilated pupil. UCLA Health. UCLA Health Link.
  8. What causes light sensitivity (photophobia)? Royal National Institute of Blind People. RNIB Link.
  9. Doran M. Photophobia: Looking for causes and solutions. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Published November 2005. AAO Link.
  10. Materials for the educational team. National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. Published 2016. NOAH Link.
  11. Aniridia. Hackensack University Medical Center. Hackensack UMC Link.
  12. Lusby FW, eds. Corneal injury. Mount Sinai. Updated August 20, 2016. Mount Sinai Link.
  13. Blood in the front of the eye (hyphema). Tufts Medical Center Community Care. HHMA Link.
  14. Gariano RF, Kim CH. Evaluation and management of suspected retinal detachment. American Family Physician. 2004;69(7):1691-9. AAFP Link.
  15. Eye-related photophobia. Optometry Today. Optometry Today Link.
  16. Anticholinergic pocket reference card. UI College of Public Health. UI College of Public Health Link.
  17. Guina J, Merrill B. Benzodiazepines I: Upping the care on downers: The evidence of risks, benefits and alternatives. J Clin Med. 2018;7(2):17. NCBI Link.
  18. Mellor CS, Jain VK. Diazepam withdrawal syndrome: Its prolonged and changing nature. CMA. 1982;127:1093-6. Europe PMC Link.
  19. Your eyes and cancer drugs. Cancer Research UK. Updated September 11, 2017. Cancer Research UK Link.
  20. Salomone S. Role of magnesium, coenzyme Q10, riboflavin, and vitamin B12 in migraine prophylaxis. Academia. Academia Link.
  21. Schon F, Blau JN. Post-epileptic headache and migraine. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1987;50(9):1148-1152. NCBI Link.
  22. Leslie S. Pattern glare, photosensitivity and tinted lenses. Australasian College of Behavioural Optometrists. Published July 2017. ACBO Link.
  23. Digre KB. Photophobia - what is it? Can it be treated? American Migraine Foundation. Updated June 10, 2014. American Migraine Foundation Link.
  24. Galor A, Levitt RC, Felix ER, Sarantopoulos CD. What can photophobia tell us about dry eye? Expert Rev Ophthalmol. 2016;11(5):321-4. NCBI Link.
  25. Photophobia. Eyecare Trust. Eyecare Trust Link.
  26. Lusby FW, eds. Photophobia. Mount Sinai. Updated May 10, 2017. Mount Sinai Link.
  27. Allergic conjunctivitis. The Asthma Center. The Asthma Center Link.
  28. Sudden vision loss in Arizona. Dignity Health. Dignity Health Link.
  29. Lusby FW, eds. Photophobia. Mount Sinai. Updated May 10, 2017. Mount Sinai Link.
  30. Dry eye treatment. UAB Medicine. UAB Medicine Link.
  31. Lempert T, Neuhauser H, Daroff RB. Vertigo as a symptom of migraine. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009;1164:242-251. NCBI Link.
  32. Neuroinflammatory disorders. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. National MS Society Link.
  33. Cukic V. The uncommon localization of herpes zoster. Med Arch. 2016;70(1):72-5. NCBI Link.
  34. Apanga PA, Awoonor-Williams JK, Acheampong M, Adam MA. A presumptive case of human rabies: A rare survived case in rural Ghana. Front Public Health. 2016;4:256. NCBI Link.
  35. Fisk AS, Tam SKE, Brown LA, Vyazovskiy VV, Bannerman DM, Peirson SN. Light and cognition: Roles for circadian rhythms, sleep, and arousal. Frontiers in Neurology. Published February 9, 2018. Frontiers Link.
  36. Leigh A. Diagnosis and treatment of viral meningitis. AMA Journal of Ethics. Published July 2007. Journal of Ethics Link.
  37. Seidel S, Beisteiner R, Manecke M, Aslan TS, Wöber C. Psychiatric comorbidities and photophobia in patients with migraine. J Headache Pain. 2017;18(1):18. NCBI Link.
  38. Maxwell CR, Spangenberg RJ, Hoek JB, Silberstein SD, Oshinsky ML. Acetate causes alcohol hangover headache in rats. PLoS One. 2010;5(12):e15963. NCBI Link.