Dealing with Chronic Dry Eye and Photophobia

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on January 29, 2017Written by Mary Ellen Ellis on January 29, 2017
chronic dry eye

If you have chronic dry eye, you may experience regular dryness, burning, redness, grittiness, and even blurred vision. You may also have some sensitivity to light. This is called photophobia. Photophobia doesn’t always occur along with chronic dry eye. But if you have one, there’s a good chance you’ll experience the other. Photophobia is considered a symptom, not a condition. It’s likely a result of an underlying medical cause, such as an eye infection or migraines.

Photophobia is fairly common, but not well understood. The cause of the sensitivity can’t always be found, and it may range from mild to severe. If you experience photophobia, light causes pain or discomfort in your eyes. You may find you need to wear sunglasses a lot or that you tend to keep lights off in the house.

Relationship between chronic dry eye and photophobia

Chronic dry eye and photophobia often go together. In fact, in one review of studies on photophobia, researchers found that the most common eye-related cause of light sensitivity in adults was dry eye. The most common neurological cause was migraine headaches. If you have symptoms of dry eye, sensitivity to light, or both, you should see your eye doctor as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment options. Neither will get better without some type of treatment.

Coping with photophobia

Living with a light sensitivity can be frustrating and uncomfortable. The first and most important thing you should do is see your eye doctor. If your doctor can diagnose an underlying cause and treat it, you’ll probably get relief. If a cause for photophobia can’t be found, which is possible, your doctor can help you find ways to cope with the sensitivity and get relief from the pain.

Treat chronic dry eye

Dry eye is a very common cause of photophobia. Your doctor may treat it by giving you anti-inflammatory medications, medicated teardrops, drugs that stimulate tear production, or even eye inserts that release artificial tears over time.

Avoid relying on over-the-counter eye drops. These won’t treat the underlying problem and may even make your symptoms worse with extended use.

Treat your migraines

If you have migraines, your headaches may be to blame for photophobia. The right medications to treat your migraines should also reduce photophobia.

Wear tinted sunglasses outside

When going outside, shading your eyes can help reduce sensitivity and pain. Rose-colored sunglasses are the most useful, as they help block out the green and blue light that causes the most discomfort. One study indicates that when patients with photophobia caused by disorders of eye cone cells wore red-tinted contact lenses, they found relief from sensitivity.

Don’t wear sunglasses indoors

You may be tempted to shade your eyes indoors by wearing sunglasses, but this isn’t recommended. You can actually make your eyes even more sensitive to light by doing this. Wearing very dark glasses outside can have a similar effect, making photophobia worse. Stick with glasses that block out blue-green light, not all light.

It’s also important to avoid dimming all light indoors for the same reason. You can become even more sensitive to light. But if you gradually expose yourself to more light, your symptoms may improve.

Check your mood

Some eye experts have found that patients with photophobia and eye pain may also experience anxiety. Anxiety in particular is common with chronic photophobia. These mood disorders, or even stress, may be underlying causes of light sensitivity. By getting diagnosed and treated for depression or an anxiety disorder, you may be able to better control photophobia.

The takeaway

Photophobia and dry eye can both be very uncomfortable and even painful eye conditions. The pain associated with light sensitivity may even be severe. If you have any of the symptoms of either dry eye or photophobia, the best thing you can do is see your eye doctor for a complete checkup.

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