Has bright light got you squinting or reaching for your sunglasses even when you’re inside? Find out what light sensitivity might mean, and when you should visit your doctor.

It’s normal to have some sort of adjustment period when going from a dim or dark room into a bright space, but for those who experience a heightened sensitivity to light, that transition is more than noticeable: it’s uncomfortable and even painful.

Sensitivity to light is known as photophobia, and it can result from a number of medical conditions, some related directly to your eyes.


Dry Eye Syndrome

Dry eye syndrome is a condition that can cause all sorts of discomfort, from burning and itchiness to redness and eye pain. It also happens to be the most common cause of sensitivity to light. Dry eye affects the clear, outer layer of your eyes called the cornea. This protective layer is the first entry point for light, and when that cornea isn’t properly lubricated with tears, exposure to any light can be highly uncomfortable.

Doctors aren’t quite sure why sensitivity to light accompanies dry eye, but some believe it may have to do with inflammation of nerves near the cornea, or the activation of photosensitive cells that transmit light to the brain.

What to try: Try lubricating eye drops to soothe your eyes and provide some much-needed moisture. If that doesn’t help with the dry feeling or your sensitivity to light, be sure to discuss other options with your eye doctor.


Corneal Abrasion

This is a scratch or cut on the cornea, and it can cause pain and blurred vision along with light sensitivity. Even though our eyes are designed to defend against incoming hazards (such as dust, dirt or a flying ball) with eyelids and eyelashes, it’s easier than you might think to scratch or tear your cornea. It could happen during sports, yardwork, or any number of activities.

Incidentally, having dry eye syndrome increases your risk of corneal abrasion. And just like with dry eye, it’s the disruption to the healthy state of the cornea that could increase your sensitivity to light.

What to try: Visit your eye doctor so they can take a good look at your eye and diagnose the trouble. Most often, corneal abrasions heal with time, but the cut or scratch could lead to infection. In that case, your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or steroid eye drops.


Keratoconus

Corneas are typically round, but in this condition, the cornea instead thins and bulges into a cone shape, which distorts your vision and makes it difficult for the eye to focus light correctly. Photophobia can be one side effect of this condition.

Your eye doctor may prescribe special glasses or contact lenses to help correct the visual distortions, and that can also help with the issue of light sensitivity.

What to try: If you have a sudden worsening or clouding of vision in one eye or both, eye irritation, headaches, or other symptoms along with your sensitivity to light, make sure to see your doctor.


Keratitis

Keratitis is another condition affecting the cornea that could cause sensitivity to light. The cornea becomes inflamed, whether due to injury to the eye, exposure to intense sunlight, dry eye syndrome, or even improper contact lens care or wearing contacts longer than you should.

It can also be the result of an infection. Redness, eye pain, and eye irritation are some of the initial symptoms, and light sensitivity is a common symptom, as well.

What to try: Keratitis — especially if it’s of the infectious variety — can come with some serious complications, including vision loss, so see your eye doctor if you experience symptoms.


Migraines

Not only do migraines come with debilitating head pain, they also come with other symptoms such as blurred vision, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, and photophobia.

Not only does light sensitivity come with migraine; exposure to bright light can actually trigger migraine. Both might stem from the irritation of the trigeminal nerve, part of the nervous system that is responsible for sending sensations of pain, temperature and touch from your face to your brain.

What to try: The best way to treat light sensitivity in this case is to both prevent and treat the migraines themselves. Talk to your doctor about finding the best migraine treatment.


Traumatic Brain Injury

Photophobia can occur immediately after impact, and it can also be a symptom associated with post-concussion syndrome (PCS), lasting weeks, months, a year or longer. Light sensitivity is the top vision-related complaint for people who have suffered a concussion, and it’s thought to have to do with injury to the thalamus (a structure in the brain that filters visual information) or other areas of the brain.

What to try: Follow the medical advice of the doctor treating your concussion, and make sure you’re alerting him or her to all your symptoms, including photophobia.


What to do about photophobia

Because there are so many different health conditions that might cause sensitivity to light, be sure to talk to your eye doctor or other health care practitioner to get to the bottom of what’s causing your trouble. They’ll be your best resource in diagnosing and determining the right treatment for you, including treatment that can help you with your sensitivity to light.

If you’re experiencing visual discomfort or other symptoms, contact us to schedule an eye exam.

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