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Why Do My Eyes Feel Sensitive to Light?

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A child girl covering her face and eyes by hand to protect strong sunlight.

If the light in your home makes you wince and your sunglasses are your new staple accessory, you may suffer from light sensitivity. Also known as photophobia, the condition translates to “fear of light.” While chances are you’re not afraid of light, you may be avoiding it.

Sensitivity to light can be caused by several different medical or eye conditions. In a thorough eye exam, your optometrist can determine if there’s an underlying eye condition causing eye sensitivity and how to treat it appropriately. 

What is Light Sensitivity?

Light sensitivity is a problem caused by other conditions, and the symptoms can fall anywhere on the spectrum, from mild to severe. Photophobia can be an effect of eye dysfunction caused by a common eye problem, like dry eye disease, or a medical condition, such as migraines.

What are the Symptoms of Light Sensitivity?

Some of the symptoms of photophobia include:

  • A perception that light is brighter than it is
  • Difficulty reading
  • Squinting
  • Seeing coloured spots in your vision, even in the dark
  • Headaches
  • Excessively dry eyes
  • Tear production

Sometimes, other symptoms like fatigue, nausea, and head pain can be present alongside light sensitivity.

What Causes Your Eyes to Become Sensitive to Light?

Photophobia can stem from a variety of causes.

Dry Eye Disease

Dry eye disease is a widespread condition that causes redness, eye pain, gritty sensation in the eye, blurred vision, and sensitivity to light. Since dry eye has several potential causes, your optometrist will perform a comprehensive eye exam, discussing any medications you take, examining the eye’s structures, and checking your contact lenses.

The symptoms, including light sensitivity, will hopefully improve by addressing and treating dry eye disease.

Digital Eye Strain

Screens from computers, tablets, and phones dominate our lives, sometimes resulting in digital eye strain that can cause soreness, headaches, blurry vision, and light sensitivity.

Over 50% of computer users have experienced digital eye strain. Fatigued and dry eyes from strain can sometimes result in photophobia. Optometrists recommend regular breaks from screens to give your eyes a break, but if symptoms persist, your optometrist can recommend some strategies to help diminish the effects of digital eye strain.

Pink Eye

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is an inflammation over the eye’s surface that causes it to look pink as it becomes inflamed. Symptoms of conjunctivitis include a gritty feeling in your eye, redness, watery discharge, and light sensitivity.

Conjunctivitis is commonly caused by bacterial or viral infections, which are constantly going around in elementary schools. If light sensitivity is a result of pink eye, your optometrist may prescribe antibiotic eye drops for bacterial pink eye or warm and cold compresses for viral pink eye.

Corneal Abrasion

Corneal abrasions are surface injuries or scratches to the eye that can be painful and tough to ignore. An injury to the cornea commonly occurs when a foreign object, such as sand, metal, dirt, or other substances, gets into the eye. Sensitivity to light sometimes accompanies corneal abrasions, along with redness, discharge, or blurry vision.

If you think you’ve scratched your cornea or have something stuck in your eye, see your optometrist, even if you don’t experience severe symptoms. Your optometrist may want to treat you with moisturizing eye drops, antibiotic eye drops, or other treatment methods.

Detached Retina

Your retina houses the light-sensitive rods and cones that work with the optic nerve to send visual information to your brain. When the retina detaches or tears, it separates from the blood vessels at the back of the eye. Over time, this can starve the eye of the oxygen and nourishment it needs to function correctly.

Damage to the retina can cause blurred or narrowing of vision, “floaters” in your vision, and light sensitivity. A retinal detachment is often considered an eye emergency. If you’re experiencing light sensitivity along with these other symptoms, seek immediate emergency eye care from your optometrist.

Cornea Infection

A cornea infection, or Keratitis, is inflammation of the cornea that can result in symptoms such as redness, eye pain, difficulty opening your eyes, and photophobia.

Keratitis can be a viral or bacterial infection caused by wearing contact lenses too long, having a foreign particle in your eye or an injury to the eye. Your optometrist can offer treatment plans and at-home care instructions to help clear the infection and improve symptoms, including light sensitivity.

A man sitting on a sofa is squinting his eyes while using his smartphone. Squinting is one of the signs of light sensitivity.

When to Seek Treatment for Photophobia

Some eye problems, like retinal detachments and corneal abrasions, can benefit from early treatment. Light sensitivity can be an indication that an underlying condition is to blame. Some medical conditions not associated with your eye structures can cause light sensitivity. 

You should seek care if you’re experiencing sensitivity to light and:

  • Vision changes
  • Fever
  • A head injury
  • Neurological symptoms, such as confusion
  • Seizures
  • Headaches
  • Stiff neck
  • Vomiting

Light sensitivity can also be characteristic of meningitis, encephalitis, or migraines. Your optometrist can work alongside your other medical care providers to treat the causes of light sensitivity and help lessen the symptom.

Treatment for Light Sensitivity

Depending on the underlying cause of your light sensitivity, your optometrist may recommend certain types of treatments, including:

Treat Your Photophobia at the Source

Whether your light sensitivity comes from dry eye, digital eye strain, or an infection or injury, booking an eye exam with our team can help uncover the underlying cause. We can help build a treatment plan to support your eye health and reduce the frequency of your photophobia.

Written by Dr. Robert MacAlpine

Dr. MacAlpine graduated from Queen’s University, and attended the New England College of Optometry in Boston, MA. He graduated in 1999 with clinical and academic honours and was recipient of the Alcon Award for Most Outstanding Contact Lens Clinician. His internships included Pediatric and Low Vision focused training, several Veteran Affairs Hospitals in the greater Boston area, and the Barnet Dulaney Cataract and LASIK Center in Phoenix, Arizona. After graduating, Dr. MacAlpine established a successful practice and optical store in the Boston area. Practicing in the United States allowed him privileges of treatment and prescribing for eye diseases that were not permitted to Ontario Optometrists until 2011. Robert was thrilled to return to his native Ontario in 2011 to raise his two daughters, Deanna and Ella with his wife Amy. He enjoys playing hockey and being active with his family.
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