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Photophobia: Causes and treatment of light sensitivity

Woman covers eyes from bright light

Photophobia, or light sensitivity, is eye discomfort caused by light.

Sources such as sunlight, fluorescent light and incandescent light all can cause discomfort, creating a need to squint or close your eyes. Headaches also may accompany light sensitivity.

Light-sensitive people sometimes are bothered only by very bright light. In extreme cases, however, any amount of light can be irritating.

What causes photophobia?

Photophobia is not an eye disease, but it is a symptom of many conditions such as infection or inflammation that can irritate the eyes.

Light sensitivity also can be a symptom of underlying diseases that don't directly affect the eyes, such as virus-caused illnesses or severe headaches or migraine.

People with a lighter eye color also may experience more light sensitivity in environments such as bright sunlight, because darker-colored eyes contain more pigment to protect against harsh lighting.

Other common causes of photophobia include corneal abrasion, uveitis and a central nervous system disorder such as meningitis. Light sensitivity also is associated with a detached retina, contact lens irritations, sunburn and refractive surgery.

Photophobia often accompanies albinism (lack of eye pigment), total color deficiency (seeing only in shades of gray), botulism, rabies, mercury poisoning, conjunctivitis, keratitis, and iritis.

Also, some prescription medications, including tetracycline and other antibiotics,  may cause light sensitivity as a side effect.

Photophobia treatment

The best treatment for light sensitivity is to address the underlying cause. Once the triggering factor is resolved or managed, photophobia disappears in many cases.

If you are taking a medication that causes light sensitivity, talk to your prescribing doctor about discontinuing or replacing the drug.

If you're naturally sensitive to light, avoid bright sunlight and other harsh lighting sources. Wear wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses with ultraviolet (UV) protection when outdoors in daylight.

Also, consider wearing eyeglasses with photochromic lenses. These lenses darken automatically outdoors and also block 100 percent of the sun's UV rays.

In bright sunlight, wear polarized sunglasses. These lenses provide extra protection against glare-causing reflections of light from water, sand, snow, concrete roadways and other reflective surfaces.

If you are very sensitive to light, you might even want to consider wearing prosthetic contact lenses that are specially colored to look like your own eyes and also reduce the amount of light that enters your eyes to reduce or prevent photophobia.

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