What is Photophobia? Light Sensitivity, Headache, and Migraine
The word photophobia literally means ‘fear of light’ – so it makes sense that healthcare professionals use the term to describe a hypersensitivity to light. Photophobia is a relatively common condition that can cause mild to severe eye pain or discomfort.1
What Causes Photophobia?
Photophobia can be the result of many different medical conditions and lifestyle factors. Learn about some of the most common photophobia triggers (and some very rare ones) below.
If you are one of the unlucky 12 per cent of the world’s population that suffers from migraines, it is extremely likely that you’ve experienced photophobia.2 According to the National Headache Foundation, between 80 and 90 per cent of migraine sufferers will experience hypersensitivity to light during an attack. Migraine sufferers have also been found to be more sensitive to light between attacks than people who don’t get migraines.3
Unfortunately, not only is photophobia a symptom of migraines, but light is also a common migraine trigger – and exposure to light is linked with increased headache or migraine severity.4,5
Photophobia isn’t just associated with migraines. It can also be a symptom of the more common and milder tension and cluster headaches. With these types of headaches, light sensitivity may occur both during and between attacks, but it is generally less severe than during a migraine.3
Certain eye conditions can also cause photophobia, such as:
- Blepharospasm (eye twitching): This is when muscles in the eyelids twitch or blink uncontrollably. It’s generally caused by fatigue, stress or eye strain and can cause dry, irritated eyes – as well as light sensitivity.6
- Corneal abrasion: Damage to the outer-most layer of the eye (cornea) can cause eye redness, blurred vision, headache and a sensitivity to light. This is a common injury – particularly in children – and while it’s painful, it does not generally cause permanent damage.7
- Scleritis or iritis: Inflammation or irritation of the sclera (the white of your eye) or the iris (your pupil) can cause extreme photophobia. Both can be the result of eye injury, infection or other medical conditions.8,9
- Conjunctivitis: Conjunctivitis (or ‘pinkeye’) is an inflammation of the membrane that lines the white part of your eye. This irritating condition is generally caused by a virus or bacteria and is extremely contagious, so be careful around those who already have it. Wash your hands regularly and don’t share items.10
- Trachoma: Trachoma is a contagious bacterial eye infection – and the world’s leading preventable cause of blindness. It can cause eye itching, irritation and swelling, along with photophobia.11
Some serious brain conditions can cause sensitivity to light, however these are extremely rare
- Encephalitis: Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain tissue due to a viral infection or autoimmune condition. It affects just 10-15 people per 100,000 each year.12
- Meningitis: This rare bacterial infection affects the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord. If left untreated, it can be extremely serious – potentially leading to permanent brain or nerve damage.13
- Concussion: Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) such as concussion, caused by a blow or knock to the head, can lead to photophobia. In most mild cases, symptoms of concussion (including light sensitivity) will appear within a week of the injury and clear up within three months.14
Speak to your doctor immediately if you are concerned you may be showing signs of any of these conditions.
Medicines and Surgery
Photophobia can be a side effect of taking certain medicines. Remember to check the information sheet that comes with your medication to see if light sensitivity is listed among potential side effects, and only use the product as directed. Some common medications that can cause light sensitivity include:15
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or aspirin
- Some acne medications
- Diuretics (blood pressure medication)
You may also experience photophobia after laser-assisted eye surgery (LASIK) to treat vision problems such as cataracts, myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness) and astigmatism. It will usually clear up within a few weeks or months of your operation.16
What Sort of Light Triggers Photophobia?
All kinds of light can cause photophobia – from indoor fluorescent lights, to sunshine and glare from TV or computer screens.
Blue-green light (the kind emitted by our screens and light bulbs) generally causes the most sensitivity. And as a general rule, the brighter the light, the worse your photophobia is likely to be.17
How is Photophobia Diagnosed?
If you are suffering from light sensitivity, a visit to an optometrist (eye doctor) may help to get to the root of the problem. In addition to asking about any current medical conditions that could be causing your symptoms, your optometrist may conduct some basic eye tests to confirm a photophobia diagnosis.
Preventing and Reducing the Symptoms of Photophobia
Photophobia is never a convenient or pleasant condition to experience – however, if your photophobia is having significant impact on your life, there are some simple steps you can take to help prevent and reduce your symptoms:
- Avoid bright sunlight by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when outside.
- Keep your house lights as dimmed as practically possible.
- Talk to your optometrist about trying FL-41 (red-tinted) glasses, which have been shown to reduce light sensitivity in some cases.18
- If you suffer from migraines, avoid triggers that cause attacks when possible (stress, lack of sleep, overexertion).19
- Practice good eye hygiene (not touching eyes or sharing make-up) to reduce the risk of conjunctivitis.
- Stay up to date with your vaccinations to reduce the risk of bacterial meningitis and encephalitis.
Treatments for Photophobia
The treatment your doctor will recommend for light sensitivity will depend on the underlying condition that is causing your symptoms. Treatment options may range from lifestyle changes to different medications – and in more serious and rare cases, surgical procedure. Always consult a healthcare professional to learn which treatment method best suits you.
If you find you are experiencing photophobia as a result of migraine or headache, an over-the-counter medication like Excedrin will help to ease pain and discomfort. Discover the wide range of Excedrin pain relief products here.
- Shedding Light on Photophobia. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3485070/pdf/nihms351560.pdf. Accessed 17/02/20.
- Migraine facts. Migraine Research Foundation. https://migraineresearchfoundation.org/about-migraine/migraine-facts/. Accessed 17/02/20.
- Light and Headache Disorders: Understanding Light Triggers and Photophobia. National Headache Foundation. https://headaches.org/2017/03/27/light-headache-disorders-understanding-light-triggers-photophobia/. Accessed 17/02/20.
- Migraine (Symptoms & causes). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20360201 Accessed 17/02/20.
- A neural mechanism for exacerbation of headache by light. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2818758/pdf/nihms165638.pdf Accessed 17/02/20.
- Blepharospasm. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/blepharospasm. Accessed 18/02/2020.
- Corneal abrasion. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/corneal-abrasion-a-to-z. Accessed 18/02/20.
- Scleritis. American Academy of Ophthalmology. https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/scleritis-causes. Accessed 18/02/20.
- Iritis (Symptoms & causes). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iritis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354961?page=0&citems=10. Accessed 18/02/20.
- Pink Eye. National Eye Institute. https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/eye-conditions-and-diseases/pink-eye. Accessed 18/02/20
- Trachoma (Symptoms & causes). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/trachoma/symptoms-causes/syc-20378505. Accessed 18/02/20.
- Encephalitis. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/encephalitis. Accessed 18/02/20.
- Meningitis. NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/meningitis/. Accessed 18/02/20.
- Post-concussion syndrome. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-concussion-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20353352?page=0&citems=10. Accessed 18/02/20.
- Other causes of light sensitivity. Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNBI). https://www.rnib.org.uk/light-sensitivity-due-other-conditions. Accessed 18/02/20.
- Lasik eye surgery. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/lasik-eye-surgery/about/pac-20384774. Accessed 18/02/20
- Light and Headache Disorders: Understanding Light Triggers and Photophobia. National Headache Foundation. https://headaches.org/2017/03/27/light-headache-disorders-understanding-light-triggers-photophobia/. Accessed 18/02/20.
- FL-41 lenses. Moran Eye Center, University of Utah. https://healthcare.utah.edu/moran/optometry/fl41-lenses.php. Accessed 18/02/20.
- Migraines (Symptoms & causes). https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20360201. Accessed 18/02/20.