Why are My Eyes Sensitive to Light?
Photophobia is the clinical term for sensitivity to light.
Does sunlight or bright light in a room cause you eye discomfort? If so, then you may have a condition called “photophobia” which literally means fear of light. People who have photophobia do not actually fear light, but they do try to avoid it because of the discomfort or pain it causes them.
Photophobia can be a symptom of a medical condition or it can be caused by eye strain or dry eyes. In some people there is a neurological component to their photophobia that is caused by how the receptors in the eye communicate with the brain. That is why photophobia is a common occurrence in people who suffer from migraines or have had a traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, or post-concussion syndrome.
Let’s take a look at a few of the common causes for photophobia. This list includes common causes but does not include all the potential causes of photophobia:
Dry Eye Syndrome
Dry eyes can cause many types of eye discomfort such as burning and itchiness, but dry eye syndrome is also the most common cause of photophobia. Eyes that are dry and lack enough of the protective layer of tear film can be extremely sensitive to light. This may be caused by the inflammation of nerves near the cornea, or the over-activation of the photosensitive cells that transmit light to the brain.
Migraines Cause Photophobia
Migraines have accompanying symptoms such as blurred vision, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and light sensitivity. In some cases, exposure to bright light can trigger a migraine. This is probably caused by light causing an irritation to the trigeminal nerve, which is the nerve that sends sensations of pain, temperature, and touch from your face to your brain. About 80% of people who suffer migraines have photophobia.
A corneal abrasion is a scratch or cut on the cornea. You might get a corneal abrasion from dust, dirt or an accident while playing sports or doing yardwork. The abrasion on the cornea can increase your sensitivity to light. Most often a corneal abrasion will heal on its own, but it could lead to an eye infection, so it’s a good idea to see your eye care professional if you have scratched or injured your cornea.
People with lighter eye colors are often more prone to photophobia than those with dark eye color. The theory here is that the additional melanin in brown eyes helps protect against UV light.
Keratoconus causes the cornea to thin and bulge which distorts vision and makes it difficult for the eye to focus light correctly. Photophobia can be a side effect of this condition. Special glasses or contact lenses can be prescribed to help correct the visual distortions and they may also help with the photophobia.
This is an inflammation of the cornea and it can be caused by infection, injury, exposure to intense sunlight, dry eye syndrome, or improper contact lens care or wearing contact lenses longer than prescribed. Redness, eye pain, and irritation along with photophobia are common symptoms of an inflamed cornea.
Traumatic Brain Injury
Photophobia can occur immediately after a traumatic brain injury or it can be a symptom associated with post-concussion syndrome. Photophobia is a common vision-related symptom for people who have suffered a concussion. It is believed to be caused by injury to the thalamus which is the gateway through which visual information reaches the cerebral cortex.
Because this is a condition with many causes, it is a good idea to visit your eye care professional to find out what may be causing your photophobia. There are many treatments for photophobia from precision-tinted glasses, lubricating eye drops, antibiotic eye drops, anti-inflammatory medications, or medical treatment for the underlying disorder that is triggering it.
Gregory Scimeca, M.D.
Ophthalmologist and Medical Director
The Eye Professionals