What is Sensitivity to Light?

Sensitivity to light, also called photophobia, can range from a mild annoyance to a serious hindrance of daily life. While some sensitivity to light is normal (for example when one steps from a dimly lit space to brightly lit space), extreme sensitivity to light could in fact be an indication of an underlying health issue that could lead to eye damage.


For you to see, light reflects off objects and moves towards the front of the eye. After entering the eye, the light will encounter a thin veil of tears, followed by the cornea, which helps in focusing the light towards the back of the eye. The light then passes through the aqueous humor and the pupil. The pupil changes in size to control the amount of light that is allowed to pass through. After that it will make its way through the natural crystalline lens; where it will focus the light onto the retina by adjusting in shape based on whether the object is near or far. After the light has been altered by the lens it will pass through the vitreous body before reaching the retina. The retina consists of photoreceptors that help to send light impulses at the back of the eye through nerve fibers of the optic nerve. Finally, the light signals reach the brain, and processing images takes place.


Based on this process, if one is sensitive to light it can severely impact their ability to carry out normal tasks. Light sensitivity could be due to several issues, including:


  • Eye inflammation
  • Corneal abrasion or ulcer
  • Improper wear of contact lenses
  • Eye infection, disease, injury, or surgery
  • Meningitis
  • Migraine headaches
  • Medications


The majority of people who experience sensitivity to light may experience an accompanying headache, including a migraine, cluster, or tension headaches. Chronic headaches due to light sensitivity should be discussed with a physician as it can indicate a serious underlying condition, such as brain injury or disease.


Light sensitivity can also be caused by certain medications. In this case, light sensitivity is not always limited to the eyes but can affect the skin as well causing skin burn, itching, scaling, rash, or swelling with exposure to ultraviolet light. You may experience light sensitivity if you are on one of the following medications:


  • Antihistamines
  • Furosemide
  • NSAIDs
  • Oral and estrogen-based contraceptives
  • Quinine
  • Sulfonamides
  • Tetracycline
  • Tricyclic anti-depressants


You may also be able to manage your light sensitivity by making some lifestyle changes to minimize your eyes’ exposure to sunlight. You may want to take a moment when transitioning between areas with different levels of light, shield your eyes from the sun, or wear UV-protected sunglasses, light activated tinted glasses, or wrap-around sunglasses when outdoors.


Due to the many causes for light sensitivity, one should visit an eye care specialist if they are experiencing increased sensitivity to light. The optometrist will be able to examine and determine the cause for sensitivity to light and prescribe the appropriate course of treatment to help resolve the symptom and avoid vision loss. If you are diagnosed with light sensitivity due to dry eyes, then you may need to keep eye drops on hand to minimize discomfort. Underlying causes such as cataracts or inflammation may require you to undergo further treatment alongside making lifestyle changes.


If your light sensitivity is a new symptom, it may indicate an acute ocular health issue. If you are experiencing sensitivity to light, schedule an appointment with your optometrist for an examination and diagnosis today.


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