Symptoms A-Z

Sensitivity to Light Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand sensitivity to light symptoms, including 9 causes & common questions.

This symptom can also be referred to as: photophobia

Sensitivity To Light Symptom Checker

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Sensitivity To Light Symptoms

Sensitivity to light is a common symptom sometimes the first symptom of trouble with your eyes. 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.

Sensitivity to light, or photophobia, means intolerance to light not the fear of it [1].

Common characteristics of sensitivity to light

If you're experiencing sensitivity to light, it can likely be described by the following.

  • 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
  • Squinting, closing your eyes, and turning your head away from all but the lowest light
  • Staying in darkened rooms
  • Headache
  • Nausea [2]
  • Excessive tear production
  • Finding it difficult to work: Most jobs require bright light.

Duration of symptoms

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 [3]. Sensitivity to light symptoms will not resolve until the underlying cause is treated.

Who is most often affected by sensitivity to light symptoms?

  • People with light colored eyes: You cannot block the light as well and are more likely to be affected than those with darker eyes.
  • If you have albinism
  • Anyone with any condition that results in "dry eye" [1]

Are sensitivity to light symptoms serious?

The severity of your symptoms is ultimately dependent on the cause.

  • Not 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.
  • Moderately serious: A chronic case can interfere with activities of daily living and quality of life, making both working and socializing increasingly difficult.
  • Serious: A severe case may be a symptom of more serious illness and can lead to loss of vision [4].

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.

Infection

Infections may be the cause of your sensitivity to light symptoms, such as the following.

  • Bacterial infections: These cause inflammation in any part of your eye, from the outer eyelids to the inner structures [5].
  • Viral infections: Some may only infect your eye, and systemic viral infections affect your entire body, making you generally feel ill while also causing eye symptoms.
  • Fungal infections of the cornea [4]
  • Parasitic infections of the cornea

Eye deficiencies or abnormalities

This includes conditions that allow too much light into your eye, such as:

  • Pupil deficiencies: Inability of your pupil to close properly, from corneal abrasion and retinal damage or from damage to the oculomotor nerve [6]
  • Lack of pigment in your iris, especially with albinism
  • Having no iris at all
  • Pupillary dilation: This may be natural or may be artificially done for an eye examination.

Eye injury

The following eye injuries may result in sensitivity to light:

  • An abrasion, laceration, foreign body, or chemical injury to the cornea [7]
  • Bleeding within the eye
  • Retinal detachment [8]
  • Scarring of your cornea or sclera: Either from disease or injury

Underlying medical conditions

  • Progressive eye disorders: These slowly cause deformity and loss of function in the structures of your eye.
  • Hereditary conditions: These may cause malformation of eye structures, or the structures may be missing altogether.
  • Autoimmune disorders: These may cause the body to turn against itself and damage its own structures [9].

Other general causes of sensitivity to light

Other various causes that can result in sensitivity to light include the following.

  • Allergies: They can cause very dry and irritated eyes.
  • Medications: Most commonly anticholinergic drugs, which impact the iris sphincter muscle, and benzodiazepines, especially after long use [10]. Withdrawal from many kinds of drugs as well as chemotherapy can also result in sensitivity to light [11,12].
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Such as magnesium or riboflavin deficiency
  • Nervous system disorders: Autism spectrum disorder may cause a sensitivity to light due to difficulty processing sensory information. Seizures may also cause a sensitivity to light [13].
  • Brain disorders: Severe headache and other forms of head pain as well as damage and/or bleeding within the brain from trauma, hemorrhage, tumor, or congenital malformation [3,8].

9 Possible Sensitivity To Light 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.

Inflamed eyelid (blepharitis)

Inflamed eyelid, or blepharitis, is a bacterial infection of the skin at the base of the eyelashes.

If the oil glands around the eyelashes become clogged, normal skin bacteria will multiply in the oil and cause infection. The glands can become blocked due to dandruff of the scalp and eyebrows; allergies to eye makeup or contact lens solution; or eyelash mites or lice.

Symptoms include red, swollen, painful eyelids; oily, dandruff-like flakes of skin at the base of the eyelashes; and eyelashes that grow abnormally or fall out.

If the symptoms do not clear with hygiene, see a medical provider. Blepharitis can become chronic and lead to infections of the eyelids and cornea; dry eyes which cannot take contact lenses; and scarring and deformity of the eyelids.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination of the eyelids, under magnification and through skin swab of the eyelashes.

Treatment includes warm compresses and careful washing of the eyelids; antibiotics in pill or cream form; steroid eyedrops; and treatment for any underlying condition such as dandruff or rosacea.

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

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.

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

Sarcoidosis

Sarcoidosis means the growth of tiny granulomas, which are collections of inflammatory cells. They are most common in the lungs, skin, and eyes.

The condition is thought to be an autoimmune response, meaning that the body turns against itself for unknown reasons.

Sarcoidosis can affect anyone. It is most common in women of African descent from age 20 to 40.

Symptoms include fatigue, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and unexplained weight loss. There is often dry cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest pain. The skin may show unusual sores or bumps. Eyes may be reddened and painful, with blurred vision.

These symptoms should be seen by a medical provider, since sarcoidosis can cause organ damage if left untreated.

Diagnosis is made through careful physical examination, blood tests, lung function tests, eye examination, and sometimes biopsy and chest x-ray.

Treatment involves corticosteroid medication; drugs to suppress the immune system; and sometimes surgery. There is no cure for sarcoidosis, but it can be managed. Some cases will clear up on their own.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, joint pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Subarachnoid hemorrhage

A subarachnoid hemorrhage is characterized by a leakage of blood into the space between the first and second membranes surrounding the brain. The accumulation of blood causes the pressure inside the skull to increase, which can lead to brain damage and death.

Sympto...

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Hangover

A hangover from alcohol use is an uncomfortable constellation of symptoms that usually occur after an episode of heavy or binge drinking.

These symptoms include dehydration, depression, headache, anxiety, appetite suppression, difficulty concentrating, nausea, and sleepiness. The severity of a hangover is deter...

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.

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

New migraine

New, or new-onset, migraine means the person has never experienced a migraine headache before. A migraine is a one-sided headache that causes intense pain and throbbing due to blood vessels dilating in the brain.

The exact reason for new-onset migraine headache is not known, but a number of causes are being studied:

  • Pregnancy.
  • Soy isoflavone supplements, especially in men.
  • Use and overuse of certain medications.
  • Traumatic head injury.
  • Angioma, which is a cluster of dilated blood vessels in the brain.
  • A complication of surgery for some heart conditions.

Anyone with a sudden severe headache should be seen by a medical provider, so that a more serious cause can be ruled out. A transient ischemic attack, also known as TIA or mini-stroke, can have symptoms similar to a migraine but is far more serious.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as a CT scan.

Treatment for migraine varies with the individual. Lifestyle changes may be recommended and there are a number of medications that may be tried.

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

Aseptic meningitis

Aseptic meningitis refers to inflammation of the meninges caused by something other than a bacterial infection, most commonly, a viral infection. Meningitis in itself is a broad term that refers to inflammation of the meninges, the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Th...

Bacterial meningitis

Meningitis describes inflammation of the meninges, the layers of membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Viruses, fungi, bacteria, and other rare causes can lead to meningitis. Streptococcus, Neisseria, Listeria, and Haemophilus are common bacterial causes of mening...

Sensitivity To Light Treatments and Relief

When sensitivity to light is an emergency

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

  • Sudden vision loss in one or both eyes
  • Sudden and extreme sensitivity to light in one or both eyes: Especially if you also have pain in your eye
  • Any traumatic injury to your eye: Even if it seems minor

When to see a doctor for sensitivity to light

You should consult your physician for the following.

  • Moderate sensitivity to light in one or both eyes that does not clear up within 24 hours: This can be a symptom of many different eye problems.
  • Mild sensitivity with other symptoms: Such as irritation, discharge, or mild eye pain

At-home treatments for sensitivity to light

You can try the following treatments at home to try to relieve your symptoms.

  • Rest and protection: Give your eyes a break by closing them throughout the day or spending time in lower light, being sure not to stare at a bright screen for too long.
  • Cold compresses
  • Over-the-counter eyedrops: These may ease dryness and help temporarily.

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 [14]. More commonly, a single problem will cause dizziness and light sensitivity. Diseases such as multiple sclerosis, and viruses such as herpes or rabies, can cause light sensitivity that will manifest along with other symptoms such as confusion, nausea, or vomiting [15-17]. The most common cause of light sensitivity is lack of sleep, and the photophobia commonly dissipates after a good night's rest [18].

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 [16].

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 [9]. Additionally, viral illness or chemicals that enter the eye can also cause sudden sensitivity to light [7]. 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 [4]. Photophobia is also a symptom of meningitis but usually with other symptoms such as a stiff neck, nausea, fever or lethargy.

Can dry eyes make you sensitive to light?

Dry eyes do not cause sensitivity to light. 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.

Can anxiety cause light sensitivity?

No. Anxiety does not cause light sensitivity. Light sensitivity can be caused by migraine headaches, hangovers, viral illnesses (especially in children), meningitis, corneal abrasions, or even inflammation of different parts of the eye by infections (conjunctivitis, keratitis). Generally, lighter colored eyes may have more natural sensitivity to light than darker colored eyes.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Sensitivity To Light

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

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

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your sensitivity to light

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”).

Sensitivity To Light Symptom Checker

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References

  1. 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
  2. Lusby FW, eds. Photophobia. Mount Sinai. Updated May 10, 2017. Mount Sinai Link
  3. Digre KB. Photophobia - what is it? Can it be treated? American Migraine Foundation. Updated June 10, 2014. American Migraine Foundation Link
  4. Bishop S. With prompt treatment, cornea infection can be cured without long-term complications. Mayo Clinic. Published October 22, 2010. Mayo Clinic Link
  5. Light sensitivity. UCLA Health. UCLA Health Link
  6. Doran M. Photophobia: Looking for causes and solutions. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Published November 2005. AAO Link
  7. Lusby FW, eds. Corneal injury. Mount Sinai. Updated August 20, 2016. Mount Sinai Link
  8. Gariano RF, Kim CH. Evaluation and management of suspected retinal detachment. American Family Physician. 2004;69(7):1691-9. AAFP Link
  9. Levi L, Digre KB, Kardon RH. MD roundtable: Solving the photophobia puzzle. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Published November 2015. AAO Link
  10. 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
  11. Mellor CS, Jain VK. Diazepam withdrawal syndrome: Its prolonged and changing nature. CMA. 1982;127:1093-6. Europe PMC Link
  12. Your eyes and cancer drugs. Cancer Research UK. Updated September 11, 2017. Cancer Research UK Link
  13. Schon F, Blau JN. Post-epileptic headache and migraine. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1987;50(9):1148-1152. NCBI Link
  14. Lempert T, Neuhauser H, Daroff RB. Vertigo as a symptom of migraine. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009;1164:242-251. NCBI Link
  15. Neuroinflammatory disorders. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. National MS Society Link
  16. Cukic V. The uncommon localization of herpes zoster. Med Arch. 2016;70(1):72-5. NCBI Link
  17. 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
  18. 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

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.