What is Photophobia?
When we see the suffix “-phobia,” we immediately think of some kind of irrational psychological fear—but that’s not the case with photophobia. While the term photophobia literally means the “fear of light,” there’s a sound biological basis to this aversion.
Photophobia is a condition in optometry defined as an increased sensitivity to light. Some people are predisposed to photophobia due to genetics, such as people suffering from Albinoism but oftentimes photophobia is brought on by some kind of eye disease or trauma. The severity of photophobia can range wildly depending on the person’s sensitivity and the strength of the light they are exposed to.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the major causes of photophobia and the best ways to deal with this condition.
What Are The Major Photophobia Symptoms?
Of course, the defining feature of photophobia is an increased sensitivity to light. While most often photophobic sufferers have a difficult time with artificial lights, there are some cases where even natural sunlight could be uncomfortable.
Oftentimes this sensitivity to light is accompanied by other symptoms like a headache or migraine. Patients might also experience itchy eyes, eye pain, red eyes, or vertigo. The specific symptoms that accompany photophobia largely depend on the cause of the disorder.
A Brief Look At The Biology Of Photophobia
Scientists at Harvard Medical School recently made a fascinating discovery when researching photophobia in blind patients who suffered migraines. Amazingly, blind patients who still had their eyes could be affected by photophobia.
This research shows that photophobia is more of a neurological issue than a vision problem. Or, to be more precise, photophobia occurs due to some dysfunction between the visual cortex and the retina.
While this research is promising, scientists still have a long way to go to get a clearer understanding of the mechanisms behind photophobia.
What Are The Common Causes Of Photophobia?
Of course, only an experienced optometrist could help you get to the bottom of your photophobia.
Dry Eye Syndrome
As electronic devices have become more widespread, so too has dry eye syndrome. In recent years, optometrists have noticed a discernable uptick in the number of people complaining of this discomforting disorder.
Recent statistics from Moorfields Eye Hospital suggest that about one-third of UK residents over the age of 65 have some degree of dry eye syndrome. Although this disorder is more common in older demographics, dry eye syndrome is becoming more prevalent in young people as well.
Many patients who suffer from dry eye syndrome say they frequently experience increased sensitivity to light. Other hallmark symptoms of this disorder include eye redness, scratchiness, strain, and temporary blurred vision.
According to the latest research, people more prone to dry eye syndrome have issues with their Meibomian glands. These glands, which can be found around your eyelids, are responsible for producing oil that keeps eye tears from evaporating. Usually, the glands of dry eye sufferers don’t produce enough of this protective oil.
Many dry eye sufferers rely on over-the-counter eye drops to curb symptoms. While these are good in a pinch, they should be used sparingly to prevent the possibility of developing a dependency. A few long-term strategies for reducing dry eye syndrome include limiting electronic screen time and getting plenty of natural sunlight.
Symptoms like visual halos and photophobia are classic warning signs of an oncoming migraine. Usually these visual issues aren’t painful, but they could severely cloud your vision. If possible, it’s best to take one or two non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and relax in a dimly lit area when you start to experience these visual auras. Once these visual auras leave within about 30 minutes, you’ll likely experience a migraine headache.
People who are prone to migraines should know that there are two distinct visual phenomena: auras and retinal migraines. Auras (aka visual halos) are the more common and benign of these two symptoms. Usually, people who experience auras describe symptoms like flashing lights, floating forms, and slightly cloudy vision. Although they might be frightening, visual auras are usually nothing to worry about.
Retinal migraines, on the other hand, could signal a more severe issue. The defining feature of a retinal migraine is that it causes complete blindness in only one eye. By contrast, visual auras affect both eyes and usually don’t cause complete blindness. Like visual auras, retinal migraines tend to fade away within about 30 minutes.
Anyone who experiences a retinal migraine should see their primary care doctor as soon as possible. This symptom could signal many serious disorders like retinal detachment or even eye cancer.
People who experience frequent photophobia due to migraines should discuss treatment options with their doctor. In addition to medications, your doctor might suggest physical therapy, working with a dietician, or alternative treatments like biofeedback and acupuncture.
Better known as “pink eye,” conjunctivitis is a common eye infection that causes symptoms like photophobia, eye redness, and eye itchiness. You could get this condition in one of two ways: allergies or an infection. If you have a bacterial or viral infection, then you’ll probably notice crusty eye discharge first thing in the morning.
You only need to see a doctor about your conjunctivitis if you suspect you have an eye infection. For treatment, simply take the proper medications, get plenty of rest, and drink a lot of water. Within about a week, your pink eye should be completely healed.
Since pink eye is contagious, you need to be extra careful about personal hygiene. In addition to washing your hands frequently throughout the day, be conscious about touching your face, and frequently change any sheets or towels you use to wipe your eyes. Anyone who wears contact lenses should switch to eyeglasses until their pink eye symptoms have cleared up.
One of the more serious reasons you could be dealing with photophobia is a condition known as uveitis. This inflammatory eye disease is named after the uvea, which is a grape-shaped layer located underneath the cornea. People who have uveitis have an abnormal inflammation in this area of the eye.
Within the uvea are three important organisms: the iris, choroid, and ciliary body. One of the most important roles of the uvea is to help with light absorption, but it also sends critical nutrients throughout the eye. Since these processes are disrupted with uveitis, people with this disorder are at a higher risk of more severe eye issues like glaucoma, detached retina, or age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Unfortunately, visual symptoms related to uveitis usually first appear once this disorder is in its advanced stages. Besides photophobia, other warning signs of uveitis include eye pain, eye redness, and temporary loss of peripheral vision.
The earlier a doctor can detect uveitis, the better chance a patient has of staving off potentially blinding disorders. Usually, a uveitis treatment protocol involves anti-inflammatory eye drops, injections, and surgery.
To stay on top of uveitis and other eye disorders, the NHS recommends people with healthy vision get an eye screening once every two years. People with visual complications, diabetes, or a family history of eye disorders should see an optometrist once per year.
Does Eye Colour Affect Photophobia?
Yes, people who have lighter eyes are more prone to suffer from photophobia than people with dark eyes. The reason this is the case has to do with a compound known as melanin.
Melanin is a brown pigment that can be found in the skin, hair, and irises. Everyone has some melanin in their eyes, which means we all technically have brown eyes.
People with eye colours like blue, green, or grey have reduced amounts of melanin in their irises, which makes it easier for light to penetrate into their eyes and reflect outwards. Brown-eyed people, on the other hand, have a lot of melanin in their irises, which means light has a more difficult time reflecting outwards.
One of the beneficial features of melanin is that it helps to block the sun’s UV rays. So, the darker your eyes, the less chance you have of developing photophobia or diseases related to UV exposure.
This doesn’t mean, however, that brown-eyed people shouldn’t wear eye protection when they go out on the beach! In fact, recent data shows that people with brown eyes have a higher risk of developing cataracts than blue-eyed people.
Solutions For Chronic Photophobia
The solution for your photophobia will, of course, depend on the cause of your disorder. Almost everyone who frequently suffers from photophobia, however, could benefit from a dark pair of UV-protecting sunglasses. Even if the sun isn’t out, you’re still being exposed to its harmful rays, so always wear some form of eye protection when out and about.
People who are prone to photophobia might also want to consider buying eyewear that shields the eyes from electronic blue light. These glasses are especially good for people who have to stare at computers for hours at work every day.
Address The Root Cause Of Your Photophobia
The reasons for experiencing photophobia are limitless. Sometimes increased light sensitivity is simply due to genetics, but other times it could be a sign of something severe. If you frequently suffer from photophobia, then you should schedule an appointment with an optometrist to get to the bottom of your symptoms. Once you know the cause of your light sensitivity, you could start taking proactive steps to manage your symptoms.
Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 12 May 2023, Last modified: 19 May 2023