If stepping outside or flicking on a light makes your eyes want to duck for cover, you could be dealing with sensitivity to light. This basically means that light really bothers your eyes, possibly making it tempting to wear sunglasses 24/7. A little sensitivity to light when going from relative darkness to a bright surrounding is normal, and as you’ve probably experienced, typically fades quickly as your eyes adjust. But if you have photophobia—the medical term for extreme sensitivity to light—light can actually hurt your eyes.
Several health issues can cause sensitivity to light, and they really run the gamut. Here are the most common ones to keep on your radar.
1. Dry eye
Dry eye is a condition that happens when your eyes can’t lubricate themselves properly because of an issue with your tears, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). Your tears are vital for keeping your eyes healthy, which is why having inadequate tears in some fashion can be horribly uncomfortable.
This discomfort stems from the way dry eye impacts your corneas, the clear, protective outer layers of your eyes. Your corneas have a lot of nerves, so any kind of problem with them can result in a range of bothersome signs that something’s wrong, JP Maszczak, O.D., assistant professor of clinical optometry at the Ohio State University College of Optometry, tells SELF.
Sensitivity to light is a classic dry eye symptom, as are dryness (obviously), stinging, burning, pain, redness, discharge, scratchiness, and feeling like something is in your eye even if there’s nothing there, the NEI says.
While you can wear your sunglasses to help you deal with sensitivity to light, treating your dry eye is really the only way to make this better. That usually includes using over-the-counter medications like artificial tears, the NEI says. (Make sure to get the simple ones solely meant to wet your eyes, not any with eye-whiteners—those can just cause more irritation.) If you’re grappling with a more severe case of dry eye, your doctor might recommend other treatment, like corticosteroid drops to reduce inflammation or little plugs made of silicone or collagen that can help block your tear ducts and keep moisture from draining away too quickly. You’ll only know what’s best for you if you ask.
Ah, good old allergies. If you have them, you may very well know how badly they can mess with your eyes. You can thank allergic conjunctivitis for that.
Allergic conjunctivitis is actually a form of pink eye, which happens when something irritates your conjunctiva, the delicate membrane that covers your eyes and insides of your eyelids. While bacteria and viruses can cause pink eye, the allergic form of the condition comes about when your body overreacts to an allergen like pollen, dust mites, mold, or animal dander. In an attempt to protect you, your immune system produces antibodies that travel to different cells in your body, causing them to release chemicals that prompt an allergic reaction, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). If this process affects your eyes, it’s called allergic conjunctivitis, and you can wind up with symptoms like sensitivity to light, itchiness, excessive tearing, redness, and a burning sensation.
If you have allergic conjunctivitis, your doctor will probably tell you to do what you can to avoid your triggers (we know, we know—easier said than done). If that doesn’t help, things like antihistamines and allergy shots might minimize your symptoms—talk to your doctor to figure out what makes the most sense.
Migraines can feel soul-crushing. Not only is the head pain sometimes debilitating, migraines can also cause symptoms like severe sensitivity to light, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, and lightheadedness, the Mayo Clinic says.
Migraines are one of those health conditions experts are still working to fully understand. The thinking is that activity in certain nerve cells makes blood vessels in your brain dilate and also causes a release of inflammatory substances like prostaglandins, which can create pain.
The mechanism behind the light sensitivity specifically may be related to irritation of the trigeminal nerve, a cranial nerve that’s responsible for sensation in your face, Ilan Danan, M.D., M.Sc., a sports neurologist at the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, tells SELF. All light can be tough to deal with when you have a migraine, but you might find that specific types, like fluorescent light, are particularly hard to take, Dr. Danan says.
It’s not just that having a migraine can induce sensitivity to light—it can kind of work the other way around, too. Bright lights are a well-known migraine trigger, along with a multitude of other things like fluctuations in estrogen levels, foods like aged cheeses, alcohol and caffeine, stress, and changes in your sleep pattern, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you struggle with migraines, talk to your doctor about treatment options. The right migraine treatment is so individual for each person, but yours could include pain medications to get through migraines as they happen along with preventive ones to avoid them in the first place.
4. A concussion
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that impacts the way your brain functions and is usually caused by a blow to the head, according to the Mayo Clinic. The effects are typically temporary, but they can be subtle and may not show up immediately. Then, they can last for days, weeks, or even longer.
Some symptoms might show up soon after the head injury, including a headache, temporary loss of consciousness, confusion, amnesia about what caused the concussion, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, appearing dazed, and being tired, but some people may have delayed symptoms, like having trouble concentrating or remembering things, trouble sleeping, personality changes, depression, issues smelling or tasting things, and, yup, sensitivity to light, the Mayo Clinic says. It’s pretty rare for someone with a concussion to just have sensitivity to light without the headache—the two usually go together, Dr. Danan says.
Experts typically recommend resting—both physically and mentally—after you get a concussion, since it will help your brain heal more quickly. Beyond that, if you have a concussion, your doctor can recommend treatment for your specific symptoms, like pain relievers if your headaches refuse to GTFO.
Keratitis is corneal inflammation that can come with a whole host of signs that your eyes are crying out for help, according to the Mayo Clinic. There are various forms, like bacterial keratitis, viral keratitis, fungal keratitis, keratitis from a parasite called Acanthamoeba, and non-infectious keratitis. Most of those are self-explanatory save for that last one; non-infectious keratitis describes corneal inflammation that happens due to something like wearing your contacts for too long or making other common contact lens mistakes.
No matter the cause, corneal inflammation can distort light that enters your eye, causing sensitivity, Christopher J. Rapuano, M.D., chief of the cornea service at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, tells SELF. Other symptoms of keratitis include eye pain, redness, blurred vision, excessive tearing, feeling like something is in your eye, and eye discharge, the Mayo Clinic says.
Proper keratitis treatment really depends on the cause. Using an antibiotic won’t help a case of viral keratitis, for example. That’s why it’s so important to see your eye doctor if you think you’re dealing with keratitis. They can prescribe antibiotics if your case is bacterial or due to Acanthamoeba, antifungals if a fungus is to blame, or antivirals if those are necessary. They can also recommend lifestyle treatments that can help with discomfort, like not wearing contacts until your keratitis clears up.
6. A corneal abrasion
In a (yikes-worthy) nutshell, a corneal abrasion means that you have a cut or scratch on your eye. While a scratch basically anywhere else on your body might be NBD, a scratch on your eye is a different story. “It can be very painful,” Nirali Bhatt, M.D., assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology at Penn Medicine, tells SELF.
Corneal abrasions often happen when something coarse cuts your delicate eye tissue, like dust, dirt, sand, or even the edge of a piece of paper. (Excuse us, we need to scream forever at the very thought.) No matter how you get one, a corneal abrasion can cause sensitivity to light, along with pain, feeling like something is in your eye, redness, tearing, blurred vision, or a headache, the Mayo Clinic says.
Treatment ultimately depends on how bad your abrasion is. If it’s pretty minor, your doctor will probably just have you ride it out (it should heal in a few admittedly painful days, Dr. Bhatt says). But if there’s a chance of infection or it’s really bothering you, your eye doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or steroid eye drops to help reduce inflammation.
Preeclampsia is a potentially life-threatening pregnancy complication that causes high blood pressure along with signs of damage to another organ system, like your liver and kidneys, the Mayo Clinic says.
People sometimes have preeclampsia with no symptoms. Sometimes, though, preeclampsia affects your eyes by damaging your retina (tissue in the back of your eyes that helps you process light) or causing swelling of your optic nerve, which connects your retina to your brain. Both of these effects can cause sensitivity to light, Dr. Maszczak says. It can also cause symptoms like severe headaches, upper abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, peeing less than usual, and shortness of breath, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you have preeclampsia, your ob/gyn may pick up on it through routine testing before you notice anything is off. But if you’re having symptoms, it’s important to flag them right away. If left untreated, the condition can cause serious complications for you and your pregnancy, so prompt treatment is of the essence. The only actual cure for preeclampsia is delivery, but if it’s too early to deliver safely, your doctor can recommend stop-gap treatments, like drugs to lower your blood pressure.
Quick tidbit about your corneas: These thin layers on the surfaces of each eye are usually round, but in what’s known as keratoconus, they can warp into a cone shape. This abnormal shape prevents your eyes from focusing light correctly, which can distort your vision, cause sensitivity to light, and just generally be a real pain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Experts don’t yet know what causes keratoconus, though factors like having a family history of the condition can increase your risk. The good news is that doctors do have methods of treating it, often involving glasses or contact lenses meant to counter that vision distortion. That might even be the only treatment you need, because sometimes people’s corneas stabilize over time when they have keratoconus, the Mayo Clinic notes. However, if your keratoconus is progressing, your doctor may want to discuss surgery as an option.
Uveitis is a term that’s used to describe a group of inflammatory diseases that can cause swelling or destroy eye tissue, the NEI says. Unsurprisingly, uveitis usually affects a part of your eye called the uvea, which is the middle layer that has a lot of blood vessels. However, it can damage other parts as well.
Uvetis happens because of inflammation that various issues can kickstart. Maybe you have an eye infection that induces inflammation. Perhaps you have an inflammatory disease that might affect your eyes, like psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, or ulcerative colitis, the NEI says. No matter why this inflammation happens, symptoms can come on pretty quickly and may include sensitivity to light, blurred vision, floaters, eye pain, and redness.
If you have uveitis, your doctor will likely focus on treatments meant to tamp down on inflammation, like steroidal eye drops. If your uveitis is stemming from an underlying health condition, they’ll want to help you take care of that, too.
Bottom line? If you’re dealing with persistent sensitivity to light, don’t try to self-diagnose. Talk to a doctor instead if you can.
As you can see here, there are so many things that might cause sensitivity to light, and many of them have confusingly similar symptoms. Getting a medical expert’s opinion is your safest bet for figuring out what’s causing your sensitivity to light so you can stop feeling like a vampire and start living like a human again.