Formula Medical Group
Apple Valley, CA

James Krider, MD

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Light sensitivity - Photophobia

What is light sensitivity?

Light sensitivity, which is also called photophobia or photosensitivity, is an unusual reaction to exposure to light, usually the sun. Although most sun reactions usually involve the skin, in photophobia, the eyes are also overly sensitive to light.

What causes light sensitivity?

Numerous factors can trigger light sensitivity. The most common include:

  • Acute glaucoma is a serious eye disorder in which the fluid inside of the eye (vitreous body) builds up, creating pressure.
  • Albinism is an inherited disorder that affects the production of melanin, the sun-protective skin pigment. In albinos, the eyes are pinkish and the skin is pale. Persons with this disorder sunburn easily, and any bright light produces eye discomfort.
  • A herpes simplex viral infection may trigger an unusual reaction to the sun, such as the appearance of cold sores. A herpes infection of the eyes increases their sensitivity to light.
  • An allergic response, in which the sun triggers an allergic reaction, can cause rashes, itching, and red, sensitive eyes.
  • Lupus erythematosus, which is an autoimmune disorder, often causes skin rashes that are exacerbated by sunlight.
  • Eye infections such as iritis, an inflammation of the iris (the colored portion of the eye), can provoke eye pain, headache, redness, and pronounced light sensitivity.
  • Medications, especially thiazide diuretics, certain antibiotics, birth control pills, anticancer drugs, and acne medications, can cause increased sun sensitivity and sunburn
  • Corneal injuries and diseases that affect the cornea (the clear part of the eye just in front of the lens) can cause extreme light sensitivity. For example, people with a corneal disorder called punctate keratitis experience intense eye pain when exposed to bright lights.
How is light sensitivity diagnosed and treated?

Most people with light sensitivity see their doctors because of a skin reaction, but a significant number initially see their eye doctors because of their low tolerance to bright light. A doctor can often

Light sensitivity often can be remedied by using softer lights that reduce glare. Light reflecting off of a white surface worsens the problem.

Light sensitivity often can be remedied by using softer lights that reduce glare. Light reflecting off of a white surface worsens the problem.
determine the cause of the light sensitivity by the patient's medical history. For example, a history of recent eye infection, the use of certain medications, or the presence of disease such as lupus, point to the underlying cause of light sensitivity. A careful eye examination is needed to rule out iritis or glaucoma. Skin rashes and easy sunburn along with eye sensitivity indicate possible sun allergy.

Treatment depends upon the underlying cause. Often the only treatment necessary is to wear dark glasses out­doors and to switch to softer and dimmer indoor lighting. Dark, protective eyeglasses should be worn for work that entails exposing the eyes to bright lights such as the light from a welding machine.

What can I do myself?
Wear dark glasses that screen out ultraviolet rays when outdoors. Wearing tinted glasses indoors and using coated, low-wattage light bulbs also may help. If the light sensitivity is due to medication, switching to an alternative drug may be necessary.

When should I see my doctor?
Any unusual eye pain or sensitivity to light should be checked by a doctor. A doctor should also be consulted if exposure to the sun provokes a rash or other abnormal skin reaction.

What will the doctor do?
If the problem involves mostly the eyes, a doctor will carefully examine them, looking for signs of infection, glaucoma, corneal injury or disease, and other eye disorders that may provoke light sensitivity. If an adverse reaction to a drug is suspected, it may be stopped, or, if the drug is continued, the patient may be advised to avoid exposure to the sun and bright lights. If the problem is due to allergy or a genetic disorder, such as albinism, avoiding


Symptoms involving the eyes include:

  • Squinting or turning the head away from the light.
  • Eye pain, especially when exposed to bright lights.
  • Headache.
  • Seeing halos or flashing lights.

Symptoms involving the skin:

  • Scaly patches, redness, irritation, swelling, and blistering of the skin caused by sun exposure.
  • Itching and painful sunburn.

sunlight and wearing protective glasses may be recommended.

The course of light sensitivity

In persons with pigmentation abnormalities, such as albinism, light sensitivity is a chronic condition in which afflicted individuals must take precautions to avoid bright lights throughout their lifetime. Allergy to the sun also may require lifelong diligence.

In other cases, the course depends on the underlying cause. Light sensitivity caused by iritis or another eye infection is a temporary condition that disappears with treatment. When caused by medications, light sensitivity usually disappears when the drug is stopped.

Is light sensitivity dangerous?
Light sensitivity usually is not dangerous, but it may indicate a serious underlying disease such as acute glaucoma. If the light sensitivity involves the skin, it can lead to severe sunburns that may require hospitalization.

What can I do to avoid light sensitivity?

The causes are often beyond a person's control, but the adverse effects can be reduced by avoiding sunlight, especially when it is strong, and wearing protective dark glasses and a sunscreen when outdoors.

This article was last reviewed December 1, 2005 by Dr. James Krider.
Reproduced in part with permission of Home Health Handbook.
Corneal injuries
Glaucoma, acute
Herpes simplex
Lupus erythematosus
Med's, acne
Med's, antibiotics
Med's, birth control
Med's, chemotherapy
Med's, thiazide diuretics

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