If you are familiar with other “phobias,” you might guess that “photophobia” is an intense fear of light. While that is the linguistic definition of the word, in medicine photophobia refers to an extreme sensitivity to light that can range in intensity from a slight nuisance to a debilitating condition.
There are a variety of causes, one of the most common of which is migraines, and thus a number of potential treatment. Nevertheless, a better understand of just what is photophobia can shed a little light, no pun intended, on the condition and its potential treatments.
What Is Photophobia?
To clarify, photophobia itself isn’t actually a condition, but rather a symptom of another problem – a clarification which makes understanding what is photophobia and what causes it even more important. At any rate, the issue is one that is marked by an unusual or extreme sensitivity to light – indoors or out.
Photophobia can make transitioning from one setting to the next particularly uncomfortable, particularly if there is a drastic change in the amount of light to which you are exposed. Many individuals with photophobia find that they need to blink or close their eyes when exposed to bright light. And some patients even get extreme headaches from light changes.
The brightness of light is an obvious issue for many; however, some with the condition also suffer from issues with the wavelength or color of light as well. For example, some individuals are more sensitive to blue light than other colors. The amount of light to which you are regularly exposed also affects this symptom. If you tend to live in less light, then any light will seem even brighter.
Symptoms of Photophobia
Although photophobia is a “symptom” itself, it can also cause a variety of its own symptoms. In some cases, these indicators can shed light on what may be the cause of your photophobia. The symptoms of sensitivity can be both physical and emotional. Some of the most common side effects of photophobia include:
- Eyestrain and frequent squinting.
- Eye pain, usually related to light.
- Headache or migraine attack.
- Light intolerance, particularly of fluorescent lights.
- Inflammation of the eye and surrounding tissue.
- Excessive blinking and/or watering.
- Dizziness and/or vertigo.
Some research also suggests that individuals who are acutely light sensitive may suffer additional physical symptoms, such as nausea, trouble breathing, chest tightness, and lightheadedness. Any of these symptoms can occur within minutes or even seconds of light exposure.
Understanding the emotional connections associated with photophobia is also important for understanding the condition and seeking help. Many individuals who struggle with light sensitivity experience negative emotions connected to light exposure, including anger, fear, and even depression. Not only that, but some research indicates that individuals with chronic photophobia may actually be at a great risk for developing anxiety and other psychiatric disorders. Other emotional indicators of photophobia include:
- Mood swings.
Causes of Photophobia
The exact area of the brain that triggers light sensitivity is not quite known. Research does indicate, however, that the issue is linked to the cells in the eyes that detect light and the nerve that sends impulses to the brain. With that, there are a number of conditions that tend to cause photophobia.
The most common cause of light sensitivity, nearly 80% of individuals who have migraines also have photophobia. In fact, many individuals who suffer from migraines are light sensitive even when they are not experiencing a migraine.
Brain conditions are also common culprits of photophobia, likely because of the eye/nerve connection. Some of the most common brain conditions associated with light sensitivity include:
- Serious brain injury.
- Supranuclear palsy.
- Pituitary gland tumors.
Not surprisingly, several eye diseases can also trigger this symptoms. The most common causes include:
- Dry eye.
- Corneal abrasion.
- Retina damage.
Mental Health Conditions
Photophobia is also commonly found in individuals with certain mental health conditions. Individuals with the following mental health concerns are the most likely to also experience photophobia:
- Bipolar disorder.
- Panic Disorder.
In some cases, photophobia is the result of a surgical procedure or treatment. Surgeries with known links to light sensitivity issues include:
- Other corrective eye surgeries.
Certain medications can also cause photophobia. Common medications that may cause light sensitivity issues include:
- Antibiotics, including doxycycline and tetracycline.
- Furosemide or Lasix.
The most important step toward treatment of what is photophobia is identifying the underlying cause of the issue. As such, seeking medical attention is often important to help you determine the underlying issue and seek an effective source of treatment. Diagnosis will typically involve a thorough physical and eye exam. Your doctor may also ask a series of questions to help determine the source of the problem, including:
- When did the sensitivity begin?
- How severe is the pain?
- Is the sensitivity constant or intermittent?
- Do you have to stay in dark rooms or wear tinted glasses for relief?
- What medication are you currently taking?
- Do you wear contact lenses?
- Does anything make the sensitivity better or worse?
- Do you have any other symptoms?
Many times your doctor will be able to determine the cause of the issue following the exam. If that is the case, he may recommend treatment that involves effective home or medical care.
Depending on the severity of the issue as well as the cause, treating the issue at home may be all that is required. Generally this course of treatment involves avoiding bright sunlight, keeping lights low, and using protective eyewear to shade your eyes when the other two options are not possible.
If the cause of your photosensitivity is related to a medical concern, more aggressive treatment measures will be taken. Medical treatment typically involves:
- Medication and rest (migraines).
- Eye drops to reduce inflammation (scleritis).
- Antibiotics (conjunctivitis).
- Antibiotic eye drops (abrasions).
- Antibiotics and rest (meningitis).
In rare cases, surgery may be required if the issue is related to a more aggressive concern, such as excess blood in the brain due to hemorrhage. Seeking treatment from your doctor can help you detect these issues early and avoid further complications.
While photophobia is a common condition that generally is unavoidable, the treatment is generally simple and effective. It is important to seek doctor treatment, however, to avoid complications and rule out more progressive causes of the condition.
Photophobia is typically a symptom of other underlying conditions and getting to the root of the problem can shed important light on what is photophobia as well as the necessary course of treatment to help you find long-term relief.