What Is Photophobia?

Photophobia is an extreme sensitivity to light. The sensitivity can lead to eye discomfort or pain.

Photophobia is an extreme sensitivity to light. The sensitivity can cause pain or discomfort in the eye or head. While “phobia” is in its name, photophobia is not actually a fear of lights.

A medical condition, medication, or certain types of lighting may trigger photophobia. The sensation can happen repeatedly, or it can be an occasional experience. You might hear photophobia be referred to as light sensitivity.

Photophobia is fairly common. On its own, the occurrence is usually not considered to be particularly medically serious. However, the sensitivity can be personally debilitating, affecting your daily life. It’s important to figure out what’s behind the photophobia so you can seek a diagnosis and treatment, if necessary, for whatever might be causing it. 

A woman blocks her eyes from bright light.

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Symptoms of Photophobia

Most people report feeling that the lights are way too bright. They'll also report having pain or discomfort in or around the eyes. In addition to this sensitivity and aversion to normal light sources, other signs of photophobia can include:

  • Seeing bright-colored spots 
  • Squinting
  • Having difficulty reading
  • Feeling forehead pain
  • Tearing eyes
  • Having excessively dry eyes
  • Feeling like you want to close your eyes


Experts are still studying exactly what causes photophobia by looking into how the eye perceives light—and how the brain plays a role in that function. What they do know is that people with certain medical conditions are more likely to experience chronic photophobia. 


Migraine—a neurological condition that causes severe headaches—is one of the most common causes of photophobia. In fact, data suggest that a majority of people with migraine experience photophobia—making it one of the main diagnostic criteria for migraine.

Certain types of light might exacerbate photophobia in migraine, including:

  • Bright fluorescent lights
  • Blue light, like from computer screens 
  • Changes in light levels

People with migraine often experience photophobia before—and sometimes during or after—a migraine attack. Experts are still looking into why this is, but they think it likely has to do with the trigeminal nerve, which sits outside of the brainstem and helps regulate touch and pain sensations from the face and eyes. 

Other Neurological Conditions

In addition to migraine, there are other neurological conditions that commonly prompt photophobia. For example, photophobia seems to happen more frequently in people who have experienced meningitis (an infection of the membranes that surround the brain); traumatic brain injuries; and a condition that causes frequent, involuntary eye blinking known as blepharospasm.

This is likely due to the way that the trigeminal nerve is irritated during an infection like meningitis, after a trauma, or when interacting with the blink reflex. 

Contact Lenses

People who wear soft contact lenses might be more prone to light sensitivity. Research has shown that soft contact lenses can affect light contrast sensitivity in different lighting conditions, which might lead to photophobia episodes. 

Wearing your contact lenses for too long or wearing contact lenses that don’t fit properly can also cause photophobia.

Eye Conditions

Not surprisingly, photophobia also tends to come hand-in-hand with certain conditions that affect the eyes.

This includes common eye conditions like dry eye, pink eye (conjunctivitis), and inflammation of the middle layer of your eye (uveitis). While each condition is slightly different, photophobia is thought to happen in each because of the way the trigeminal nerve interconnects with pain and sensitivity reactions. 

Photophobia may also happen if your eye: 

  • Gets burned
  • Is scratched 
  • Has an open sore (corneal ulcer)
  • Is dilated for a test
  • Recently underwent surgery


Several common medications may have the potential to cause light sensitivity. Researchers have found this link in the following medications: 

  • Benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that includes anti-anxiety medications like Valium (diazepam) 
  • Barbiturates, which are sedative medications 
  • Haloperidol, a medication used to treat schizophrenia
  • Chloroquine, a medication traditionally used to treat malaria

Psychological Conditions

A collection of case studies have led experts to think that there’s a potential link between certain psychological conditions and photophobia. 

More research is still needed to say for sure, but so far findings suggest that conditions like depression, chronic fatigue, anxiety, and panic disorders may have the potential to induce photophobia.

While it’s not yet well understood, there seems to be a connection between these conditions, the eyes’ light threshold, and the probability of having another neurological condition that impacts the eyes (like migraine). 

Diagnosing Photophobia

A medical visit to diagnose photophobia will usually include questions about your medical history, including whether you or any family members have ever been diagnosed with migraine, as well as questions about your current symptoms. 

From there, a physical exam and an eye exam will likely follow. The eye exam may involve checking your eye movements, vision, and pupil constriction in response to light. There may also be dilation of the pupil so the provider can check the health of the inner parts of the eyes.

If more intensive eye testing is needed, you may be referred to an ophthalmologist (a doctor who specializes in eye health). They’ll be able to use a tool known as a slit lamp to check for dry eyes, measure whether your eye produces enough tears to look for uveitis, or check your blinking to assess for a condition like blepharospasm. 

Other types of test might be needed depending on the suspected cause. If it’s thought that your photophobia may be due to a traumatic brain injury like a concussion, there are tests available that can help evaluate your neurological function. A lumbar puncture (or spinal tap) test may help in the diagnosis of meningitis.


A photophobia treatment plan will depend on the diagnosis of the underlying cause. Your healthcare provider will aim to provide you with treatment options to help ease any discomfort and relieve or reduce the photophobia episodes. This may include prescription medications for migraine or eye drops for dry eye.

While you’re in the process of treating the underlying condition, your healthcare provider might also recommend several tips to help maintain comfort as the photophobia hopefully improves. These include:

  • Taking over-the-counter pain medication to help reduce any discomfort
  • Using eye drops, gels, or ointments to soothe the eyes
  • Trying tinted contact lenses to help block out certain parts of the light spectrum


You can’t always prevent health conditions like migraine or dry eyes from occurring. But once you know the underlying cause of your photophobia, you can be more alert to what triggers it—and try to avoid those triggers. 

Experts generally recommend easing light sensitivity by: 

  • Avoiding direct contact with bright sunlight
  • Wearing dark sunglasses and a hat while outdoors
  • Setting room lights comfortably dim
  • Avoiding fluorescent lighting when possible
  • Adjusting the settings on your electronic devices to a brightness level that’s comfortable for you
  • Closing your eyes temporarily when needed

While the fear of having a photophobia episode may be tempting enough to make you stay indoors on sunny days, experts say there’s no need to stay completely in the dark, as your body needs these environmental cues to function properly. Incorporating prevention techniques can help you manage photophobia experiences—and hopefully, make them less uncomfortable.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

While a once-in-a-lifetime photophobia experience likely won’t merit a trip to a healthcare provider, it’s probably a good idea to get it checked out if the pain is moderate to severe. That’s especially true if the pain happened from light that wasn’t even that bright. 

You’ll also want to talk with a healthcare provider if your light sensitivity doesn’t go away in a day or two or is accompanied by a headache, red eye, or blurred vision. 

Watch out for these signs, and call a healthcare provider if you experience any of them: 

  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Neck stiffness
  • Soreness in the eye 
  • Numbness or tingling in other parts of the body 
  • Hearing changes

A Quick Review

Photophobia is a fairly common heightened sensitivity to light that causes eye pain, discomfort, and other similar symptoms. Some people experience photophobia on occasion in response to an external factor like certain lighting, while others may experience it more regularly due to an underlying health condition like migraine, traumatic brain injury, or blepharospasm. 

Treating photophobia will depend on what’s causing the light sensitivity. This is why it’s important to check with a healthcare provider about your symptoms to get an accurate diagnosis. In the meantime, certain lifestyle tweaks like using sunglasses outdoors and keeping indoor lights dim can help manage the sensitivity. 

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17 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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