I have several patients who complain that their eyes water and hurt in bright light. They tell me that putting their sunglasses on makes their eyes feel immediately better. Sound like you? If so, like my patients, you could likely be experiencing a fairly common eye disorder called photophobia, or light sensitivity.
There are different types of light sensitivity – that to bright sunlight and that to bright artificial fluorescent or incandescent lights, but both types can cause you to squint deeply and make your eyes tear up and water. You may even experience headaches or dizziness.
Causes of Light Sensitivity
My patients with light sensitivity are relieved when I tell them that their condition is very easily treated and is actually a symptom, which can be brought on by several things, including:
- Corneal scratches – this can happen from dirt or a foreign object getting into the eye.
- Medical conditions (thyroid, diabetes, meningitis, migraine headache, virus, sunburn, pink eye) such as these can be accompanied by photophobia.
- Prescription medications (certain antibiotics like doxycycline, tetracycline; belladonna, quinine, antihistamines, blood pressure drugs, heart failure/rhythm drugs) often have a side effect of light sensitivity.
- Eye surgery – cataract removal, refractive vision surgery can make the eye light sensitive for the immediate period following the procedure. This usually goes away in several days.
- Nutritional – deficiencies in eye specific vitamins like Vitamin A and lutein, and crucial antioxidants like selenium, Vitamins C, E, alpha lipoic acid, bilberry, lycopene can cause a whole host of eye issues from light sensitivity to poor day/night vision.
- Light eyes vs. dark eyes – people with light eyes and skin are more prone to light sensitivity than darker eyes/skin individuals, likely due to the amount of melanin.
What Can You Do About Light Sensitivity?
Since light sensitivity is usually a symptom of other conditions, the fastest way to get rid of it is to determine what the underlying condition or agent is. You may need to visit your doctor to have an eye exam and perhaps review certain medications you are on to determine the cause of your light sensitivity. In the meantime, here are some things you can do to make yourself more comfortable and help your eyes become healthy in general:
- Wide brim hat worn while out in bright sunlight. Although we all benefit by a little sun every day as a source for Vitamin D, frequent bright sunlight exposure to eyes can cause cataracts and red, irritated eyes.
- Sunglasses with good UV ray protection. See above.
- Darkening lenses that adapt to the amount of light while inside. Even indoor fluorescent lighting can cause the same light sensitivity that bright sunlight does. It also has a slight flicker, which can bring on migraine headaches and light sensitivity.
- Practice good eye hygiene – if you wear contact lenses, make sure you clean them well. Protein deposits on lenses can cause irritation to the lens of your eye and make them light sensitive. If you wear eye make-up, particularly mascara, be sure to remove it and clean your lash area with warm water and/or a small amount of baby shampoo every day to remove the residual. Replace mascara every 2 months to prevent contamination.
- Review your nutrition – are you getting enough of the vitamins and antioxidants listed above? It’s near impossible to get the correct level of vitamins and antioxidants from the food we eat alone as fruits and vegetables lose a lot of their vitamin and mineral content after they’re harvested. In addition, cooking destroys many of its nutrients. A good vision supplement containing the above vitamins and antioxidants can really help to build your eyes to an optimally healthy and comfortable state.
Light sensitivity can be very uncomfortable, especially if it is accompanied by profuse watering, which can make it hard for you to see out of the affected eye. Fortunately, it is a condition, which can easily be remedied when the underlying cause is determined. Practicing the above recommendations can go a long way to help your eyes both heal from photophobia and prevent it from occurring again.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.