Photophobia

Photophobia means that your eyes are sensitive to light. The light may be painful. Photophobia is associated with many eye conditions and other medical issues.

Overview

What is photophobia?

The literal definition of photophobia is “fear of light.” However, in medicine, it refers to your eyes’ sensitivity to light, especially bright light, which can cause discomfort and even pain.

Light sensitivity can be associated with several types of medical conditions. It can also happen as a result of temporary occurrences, like having your eyes dilated for a medical examination.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

What are the signs and symptoms of photophobia?

If you have a sensitivity to light, you may:

  • Squint or blink a lot.
  • Put your hands up to shield your eyes from light.
  • Prefer to stay inside on sunny days or prefer to go out after dusk.
  • Prefer dim light to bright light.

Are there different types of photophobia?

There are different types of photophobia: consensual and direct. Direct photophobia refers to eye pain that happens with light shining on the eye itself, while consensual refers to eye pain in the opposite eye when light is shining on one eye. True photophobia is thought to be consensual.

Advertisement

Possible Causes

What are the most common causes of photophobia?

There are several conditions associated with photophobia. Many of them are ocular (eye-related), while others are associated with your nervous system (neurologic causes). Certain medications can also contribute to having an abnormal sensitivity to light.

Eye conditions associated with photophobia

Dry eye is the most common condition associated with photophobia.

Some eye conditions related to light sensitivity include:

  • Albinism. If you have albinism, you may experience photophobia because of a lack of pigment in your iris and/or the pigmented layer around your retina.
  • Aniridia. The literal definition is “no iris.” The iris is the colored part of your eye. This is a congenital condition (meaning you had it at birth).
  • Astigmatism. This is an eye condition that causes blurred vision because your eye is more curved than the usual shape.
  • Conjunctivitis. This condition, also called pink eye, is common in children.
  • Corneal disease, including corneal abrasion and pterygium.
  • Exotropia. This is a condition where your eyes are misaligned. Either one or both eyes turn outward.
  • Optic neuritis. Another disease or unknown issue can cause this condition, which is irritation or inflammation of your optic nerve.
  • Papilledema. In this condition, pressure in or around your brain causes the optic nerve that’s inside your eye (called the optic disc) to swell.
  • Retinitis pigmentosa. This term refers to a group of diseases that cause your retina to break down. It’s usually inherited.
  • Strabismus. This condition is also called crossed eyes.
  • Uveitis. A group of diseases that cause red eyes, eye pain and inflammation inside your eye rather than on the surface.

Photophobia may also be associated with eye surgeries, including cataract surgery and LASIK surgery.

Neurologic conditions associated with photophobia

  • Blepharospasm. This condition, related to the muscles of your eyelids, begins as eye twitching and may lead to being unable to open your eyes.
  • Damage to your thalamus. This part of your brain is responsible for relaying sensory and movement-related information.
  • Meningitis. An infection of the meninges, the protective lining around your brain and spinal cord.
  • Migraine headaches. These are primary headaches that cause pain that generally get worse as a result of light, sound and movement.
  • Progressive supranuclear palsy. A rare neurodegenerative disorder that causes many neurological issues, such as problems with walking, thinking and swallowing.
  • Subarachnoid hemorrhage. This type of hemorrhage is a type of stroke that happens because of a ruptured aneurysm or because of head trauma.
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI). These types of injuries often happen in car accidents or falls. Your brain hits against your skull.

Other conditions or items associated with photophobia

  • Allergies. Allergies are your body’s immune reaction to a normally harmless substance like pollen, molds, animal dander, latex, some foods and insect stings.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome. A type of fatigue that lasts six months or longer and may include muscle aches.
  • Fibromyalgia. A long-term illness in which you have pain in your joints and muscles, along with fatigue.
  • Mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. These conditions affect the way you think, behave and feel.

Medications associated with photophobia

  • Barbiturates. These drugs are sedatives.
  • Benzodiazepines. These drugs are depressants to treat anxiety and stress.
  • Chloroquine. This drug treats malaria.
  • Haloperidol. This drug treats psychosis and other mental health conditions.
  • Lithium. As a medicine, lithium is used to treat depression and bipolar disorder.
  • Methylphenidate zoledronate. This drug is used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Tropicamide. This medication, along with others, is used to dilate pupils during eye exams.

Care and Treatment

How is photophobia treated?

Treating photophobia depends on finding out what’s causing it and then treating the cause.

It’s likely that your provider will do some tests to diagnose the condition that’s causing the photophobia. These steps may include:

  • Taking a complete medical history.
  • Performing a thorough eye exam.
  • Performing necessary neurological tests.

Your provider can suggest treatment when the diagnosis is complete. Possible treatments may include:

  • Glasses or contact lenses.
  • Medications (such as tablets), eye drops or injections.
  • Surgery.
  • Avoidance. This may be true in cases in cases of environmental allergies or in cases where medications are causing photophobia.
Advertisement

What can I do at home to treat photophobia?

When treating photophobia at home, you may find it useful to:

  • Wear sunglasses with polarization and/or a hat when you’re outside.
  • Avoid fluorescent lighting in favor of natural light and other types of lighting.
  • Use dimmers on your indoor lights.
  • Use the controls on your devices (like cell phones, televisions and computer monitors) to adjust the lighting.
  • Use moisturizing eye drops to help avoid dry eyes, if your provider agrees.

How can photophobia be prevented?

Generally, you can’t prevent photophobia. You can, however, make and keep a regular schedule of eye care appointments. Keeping your body healthy will help you keep your eyes healthy.

When to Call the Doctor

When should photophobia be treated by a doctor or healthcare provider?

You should note and report any new or worsening instance of eye discomfort or pain to your provider. Let them know if you have sensitivity even if it doesn’t actually hurt.

Additional Common Questions

What’s the difference between photophobia and photosensitivity?

Photophobia describes your eyes’ sensitivity to light. Photosensitivity is a term that describes your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight due to an immune system issue or drug reaction.

Are photophobia and phonophobia related?

Photophobia is a sensitivity to light. Phonophobia is defined as a fear of sound and may refer to an abnormal sensitivity to sound. Phonophobia and photophobia may appear together if you have other medical disorders, including migraine headaches or a traumatic brain injury. 

Is photophobia permanent?

Photophobia clears up if healthcare providers can treat the disorder causing it, like uveitis, for example. But it won’t clear up if it’s due to a congenital disorder, low pigment or lack of pigment. If it’s from dry eyes, your provider can help you manage your symptoms, but it’s often permanent.

Can photophobia cause blindness?

Photophobia can be a symptom of diseases that can cause blindness, but photophobia itself doesn’t cause blindness.

Can photophobia cause dizziness?

If you have photophobia (light sensitivity), you may find that it’s a trigger for you if you have certain conditions. You may get dizzy if you’re triggered by bright lights or flashing lights. But photophobia itself doesn’t cause dizziness.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

If you have photophobia, you’re more sensitive to light than other people may be. Light may actually cause your eyes to hurt. Photophobia is generally a symptom of another condition. These conditions range from mild and commonplace to more serious and rare. If you find that light bothers you more than it used to, call your eye care professional and make an appointment. Treating photophobia begins with finding out what’s causing it.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/04/2023.

Learn more about our editorial process.

Ad
Appointments 216.444.2020