What Your Sensitivity to Light May Mean

If light bothers your eyes, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that over 100 million people across the globe, including 40 million Americans, suffer from sensitivity to light, or photophobia. If you’re one of them, it could be a symptom of an underlying condition. 

At Urban Eye Care in Seattle, Washington, Dr. Jennifer Andrews and our entire care team understand the frustration and discomfort sensitivity to light can bring. That’s why we take this symptom seriously and work with you to find lasting relief.

Read on to learn what your sensitivity to light may mean and what you can do about it.

What is light sensitivity?

Strong light sensitivity (photophobia) occurs when light causes you pain or other symptoms. Photophobia is different from photosensitivity, which typically refers to skin sensitivity to light, although some conditions that trigger photosensitivity can also affect your eyes. 

People with lighter eye color are often more sensitive to light, especially bright sunlight, as their eyes have less pigment to protect against harsh lighting. 

If you have light sensitivity, you’re probably already familiar with the most common symptoms, including:

  • Inability to tolerate light (sunlight, fluorescent light, incandescent light, etc.)
  • Squinting or closing your eyes in the light
  • Headache and/or nausea with light exposure
  • Tearing up of the eyes with light exposure
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded 

Light sensitivity affects the pathways between your brain and your eyes, making it a neurological symptom that triggers a response in your central nervous system. 

Is light sensitivity linked to other conditions?

While photophobia sounds like a medical disorder, it’s actually a symptom of other underlying conditions. For example, 80%-90% of people who experience migraines also report sensitivity to light, as do many sufferers of cluster and vestibular headaches. 

Photophobia can also be a symptom of other conditions, such as:

  • Corneal abrasion
  • Uveitis
  • Bacterial or viral infections (e.g., meningitis, conjunctivitis)
  • Detached retina
  • Attention deficit disorder
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Glaucoma
  • Medications (e.g., tetracycline, doxycycline) 

One of the most common causes of photophobia, however, is a common condition that affects millions of people each year: dry eye syndrome. 

Dry eyes and photophobia

When your eyes don’t produce enough of the lubricating fluids that keep your eyes moist, you can develop a condition called dry eye. 

The lubricating fluids are a combination of oil produced by your meibomian glands in the eyelids, a watery factor from the glands in your tear ducts, and a mucosal component produced by the whites of your eyes.

If one or more of the sources that produce these components are affected, you can develop dry eye syndrome. Because over three-quarters of Americans with dry eye syndrome describe light sensitivity, researchers believe it may be the most prominent cause of photophobia. 

Many factors can lead to the development of dry eye, which is more common in adults over 50. These include things like computer use, allergies, medical conditions, certain medications, and environmental factors. 

At Urban Eye Care, Dr. Andrews has over 25 years of experience diagnosing and treating dry eyes to help alleviate your discomfort and improve your symptoms — including photophobia. 

Red eyes and photophobia

Sometimes people with photophobia also experience red eyes, when the whites of your eyes look red because the blood vessels inside your eyes are dilated due to any number of factors, including lack of sleep and allergies. 

Although red eyes are most frequently considered a cosmetic issue, they can also cause sensitivity to light. If this happens, it’s important to seek treatment at Urban Eye Care as it could indicate an underlying condition, such as pink eye or another infection.

What can I do to stop my photophobia?

There’s no direct treatment for light sensitivity. Instead, we diagnose and treat the underlying cause of your light sensitivity, whether it’s dry eye, migraine, or another condition.

Dr. Andrews can also recommend sunglasses that minimize glare and discuss how you can avoid making your light sensitivity worse. 

If you’re ready to learn what your sensitivity to light may mean, schedule an exam at Urban Eye Care by calling 206-344-2020, or request an appointment online today.

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