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What Is Photophobia Or Light Sensitivity? How Is It Different From Photosensitivity?

Photophobia was first described as "exposure of the eye to light definitely induces or exacerbates pain". It is a condition characterised by sensory disturbance triggered due to light. In simple terms, photophobia is a condition, or rather a symptom of many different medical conditions, in which the eyes of a person hurt when exposed to bright light.

The description of photophobia varies in different patients due to its heterogeneity. [1] Also, people often confuse photophobia with photosensitivity, a medical condition in which a person is extremely sensitive to the ultraviolet rays of the sunlight, resulting in long-lasting sunburn, rashes, itching and even risk of skin cancer when exposed.

In this article, we will discuss photophobia, its causes, symptoms and treatments. Also, we will discuss how light sensitivity is different from photosensitivity. Take a look.

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Causes Of Photophobia

There are typically four causes of photophobia: eye disorders, neurological disorders, psychiatric disorders and drug-induced.

Some of the eye disorders causing photophobia include:

  • Dry eyes
  • Inflammation in the eyes
  • Corneal abrasion
  • Detached retina [2]
  • Irritation due to contact lens
  • Eye surgery
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Scleritis
  • Cataract [3]
  • Glaucoma

Some of the neurological conditions responsible for photophobia include: [4]

  • Meningitis
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Progressive supranuclear palsy
  • Migraine [5]
  • Lesions of the thalamus
  • Subarachnoid haemorrhage
  • Blepharospasm

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Some of the psychiatric disorders causing photophobia include:

  • Chronic depression [6]
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Panic disorders
  • Other phobias
  • Chronic stress

Some of the drugs that may cause photophobia include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Antihistamines
  • Certain sulfa-based drugs [7]
  • Anticholinergic agents
  • Hormone-based contraceptives
  • anti-depressants

What Type Of Light Triggers Photophobia?

Any kind of light may trigger photophobia. It may include sunlight, rays from light bulbs, screen light from mobiles or laptops or light emitted from other sources like lamps, fire or any lighting objects.

Symptoms Of Photophobia

Photophobia is itself a symptom of many conditions, however, some of the related symptoms of photophobia include:

  • Unable to tolerate even mere light. [8]
  • Even little light seems excess.
  • Aversion to light.
  • Difficulties in looking at something.
  • Pain in the eyes when looking at the light
  • Teary eyes
  • Dizziness
  • Dry eyes
  • Shutting of the eyes
  • Eye squinting
  • Headache

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Photophobia Vs Photosensitivity

Practically, both photophobia and photosensitivity are the same as they both define a condition in which a person is sensitive or intolerant to light which causes them pain when exposed. However, in medical terms, both have different meanings.

Photophobia is mainly related to problems in the eyes, brain or nervous system or one or more of them. It occurs when there is an interruption in the communication between any three of them.

For example, some eye problems like cataract may disrupt the photosensitive cells of the eyes and cause photophobia, although the nerves which are responsible for carrying the signal from the eyes to the brain is healthy. Also, sometimes, due to neurological conditions like migraines, photophobia is induced. In such conditions, the eyes are successfully transferring the signal to the brain but are interrupted due to nerve problems.

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On the other hand, photosensitivity is not only related to eye sensitivity but skin sensitivity too due to exposure to light, especially sunlight. People with photosensitivity are often at increased risk of skin rashes, sunburns, itching, blisters and skin cancer caused due to harmful UV rays of the sun. [9]

Photosensitivity is mainly the result of defects in the light-induced DNA or gene of the skin that cause activation of certain immune reactions that make skin sensitive to light and trigger harmful symptoms.

Treatments Of Photophobia

The basic treatment for photophobia is to avoid the situation or treat the underlying condition which is causing the condition. They include:

  • Medications: To treat conditions like migraines and conjunctivitis.
  • Eye drops: To reduce inflammation and redness of the eyes.
  • Surgery: For conditions like cataracts and glaucoma.

How To Prevent Photophobia?

  • Take measures to prevent migraine attacks.
  • Wear sunglasses or a hat while going outside in the sunlight.
  • Avoid contact with people in case of eye infections such as conjunctivitis.
  • Always carry eye drops and prescribed medications.
  • Adjust the light of your home according to your comfortability.
  • Consult a medical expert for aggravation of symptoms.

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To Conclude

Photophobia is not a life-threatening condition but can cause lifestyle problems if not treated or managed at an early stage. Consult your doctor for early diagnosis and treatment.

Does photophobia go away?

Yes, in many cases photophobia can go away when the underlying condition causing it is treated or managed properly. Many eyes, neurological, psychiatric and drug-induced causes are responsible for triggering photophobia. When these conditions are diagnosed early and treated with medications or therapies, photophobia can be managed for longer years.

How do I know if I have photophobia?

Some symptoms like extreme sensitivity to light, teary eyes, aversion to light, dizziness, dry eyes, eye squinting, headache and pain in the eyes may confirm you with photophobia. However, it is better to consult a medical expert and talk about your symptoms and medical history for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Is photophobia a mental illness?

Mental illness is one of the causes of photophobia, however, it is entirely not linked to it as other conditions such as eye disorders like cataracts, use of drugs like antidepressant and certain neurological conditions like meningitis can trigger photophobia in combination.

Can photophobia be permanent?

No, photophobia is not a chronic or permanent condition. It is basically a symptom that can be triggered due to any eyes, neurological or psychiatric conditions or one or more of them. In case the condition is left untreated for many years, photophobia can aggravate and it may get difficult to fully manage the condition.