Light sensitivity is a condition in which bright lights hurt your eyes. Another name for this condition is photophobia. It’s a common symptom that’s associated with several different conditions, ranging from minor irritations to serious medical emergencies.
Mild cases make you squint in a brightly lit room or while outside. In more severe cases, this condition causes considerable pain when your eyes are exposed to almost any type of light.
Photophobia is a common symptom of migraine. Migraine causes severe headaches that can be triggered by a number of factors, including hormonal changes, foods, stress, and environmental changes. Other symptoms include throbbing in one part of your head, nausea, and vomiting.
It’s estimated that more than 10 percent of people around the world have migraine. They also occur more often in women than in men.
Conditions That Affect the Brain
Light sensitivity is commonly associated with a few serious conditions that affect the brain. These include:
Encephalitis occurs when your brain is inflamed from a viral infection or other cause. Severe cases of it can be life-threatening.
Meningitis is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The bacterial form can lead to serious complications such as brain damage, hearing loss, seizures, and even death.
Conditions that affect the eyes
Photophobia is also common in several conditions that affect the eyes. These include:
A corneal abrasion is an injury to the cornea, the outermost layer of the eye. This type of injury is common and can happen if you get sand, dirt, metal particles, or other substances in your eyes. This can lead to a serious condition called a corneal ulcer if the cornea becomes infected.
Scleritis occurs when the white part of your eye becomes inflamed. About half of all cases are caused by diseases that affect the immune system, such as lupus. Other symptoms include eye pain, watery eyes, and blurred vision.
Also known as “pink eye,” conjunctivitis occurs when the layer of tissue that covers the white part of your eye becomes infected or inflamed. It’s mostly caused by viruses, but it can also be caused by bacteria and allergies. Other symptoms include itching, redness, and eye pain.
Dry eye syndrome
Dry eye occurs when your tear glands can’t make enough tears or make poor-quality tears. It results in your eyes being excessively dry. Causes include age, environmental factors, certain medical conditions, and some medications.
Some conditions that cause sensitivity to light are considered medical emergencies. If you have this symptom and any other symptoms associated with one of these conditions, you should seek immediate medical care.
Staying out of sunlight and keeping the lights dimmed inside can help make photophobia less uncomfortable. Keeping your eyes closed or covering them with dark, tinted glasses can also provide relief.
Consult your doctor immediately if you’re experiencing severe light sensitivity. Your doctor will perform a physical examination as well as an eye exam. They may also ask questions about the frequency and severity of your symptoms to determine the cause.
The type of treatment you need will depend on the underlying cause. Types of treatment include:
- medications and rest for migraine
- eye drops that reduce inflammation for scleritis
- antibiotics for conjunctivitis
- artificial tears for mild dry eye syndrome
- antibiotic eye drops for corneal abrasions
- anti-inflammatory medications, bed rest, and fluids for mild cases of encephalitis (Severe cases require supportive care, such as breathing assistance.)
- antibiotics for bacterial meningitis (The viral form usually clears up on its own within 2 weeks.)
- surgery to remove excess blood and relieve pressure on your brain for subarachnoid hemorrhage
While you may not be able to prevent light sensitivity, certain behaviors can help prevent some of the conditions that can cause photophobia, including the following:
- Try to avoid the triggers that cause you to have migraine attacks.
- Prevent conjunctivitis by practicing good hygiene, not touching your eyes, and not sharing eye makeup.
- Reduce your risk of getting meningitis by avoiding contact with people who are infected, washing your hands often, and getting immunized against bacterial meningitis.
- Help prevent encephalitis by washing your hands frequently.
- Getting vaccinations against encephalitis and avoiding exposure to mosquitoes and ticks can also help prevent encephalitis.
Light sensitivities may be resolved, but you first need to see your doctor to help diagnose the exact cause of photophobia. Treating the underlying cause may help your symptoms.
Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing severe photophobia or for more suggestions to reduce your symptoms.