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What Causes Light Sensitivity (Photophobia)?

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Woman with photophobia squinting and shielding her eyes from sunlight

What is Photophobia?

Light sensitivity, or photophobia, is pain or discomfort caused by light. Photophobia literally means fear of light (photo meaning “light” and phobia meaning “fear of”). 

It’s not an eye disease, but photophobia can be a symptom of a variety of conditions, including dry eye, cataracts, and laser eye surgery. Depending on the severity or cause, photophobia can be caused by bright dim or bright light.

Common Causes of Photophobia

Eye Conditions

Photophobia can often be linked to issues with your eyes. Various types of infection or inflammation in the eye can make your eyes especially sensitive to light. Some of these eye conditions include:

Because photophobia can be a sign of many eye issues, it’s important to speak to your optometrist. They can rule out more serious issues and create a treatment plan to address the root cause.

Headache & Brain Conditions

Photophobia is a common symptom of headaches, especially migraines. Like in the eyes, photophobia can also be a sign of infection or inflammation in the brain, including:


Certain medications can also cause light sensitivity in both the skin and eyes. Some of these medications include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Antifungals
  • Antihistamines (allergy medication)
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen (Advil)
  • Cholesterol medication
  • Oral contraceptives (birth control)
  • Type 2 diabetes medication
Woman managing photophobia with sunglasses

What to Do if You Have Photophobia

Talk to Your Doctor

Because so many conditions can cause photophobia, it’s best to visit your optometrist as soon as possible. Your optometrist can help determine the cause and the right treatment.

If your photophobia is accompanied by these symptoms, seek emergency care:

  • Blurry vision, eye pain (these are signs of corneal abrasion)
  • Severe headache, fever, nausea, confusion (these are signs of brain conditions like encephalitis, meningitis, or brain hemorrhage)

Lifestyle Adjustments

You may also want to consider lifestyle adjustments to help manage your photophobia:

  • Using sunglasses when outside or photochromic (Transitions) lenses
    • Polarized lenses can be especially helpful for glare/very bright light
  • Avoiding bright light
  • Changing your lights to dimmer, warmer bulbs

Combined with advice from your optometrist, photophobia can be very manageable in most cases.

Written by Stephen Lobaugh

Dr. Lobaugh is an affiliate doctor with TLC Laser Eye Centers, a position that allows him to effectively co-manage a variety of refractive surgeries including LASIK, PRK, and KAMRA inlay. He is also certified by the International Association of Board of Examiners in the treatment and management of ocular disease.

More Articles By Stephen Lobaugh

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