Light sensitivity, or photophobia, is awful on its own merits, but it can be especially alarming if you feel it getting worse. Increased light sensitivity is rarely described in clinical research, but many people have recounted the changes in their light sensitivity.
"I have been having a problem with lighting, and it seemed to be getting worse after cataract surgery. It was so bad I had to stop going to church, and shopping was a quick trip into the store and right back out." -- Mary K., California
But what does it mean when your photophobia is increasing? And what causes it? We answer these questions and more to help those dealing with increased light sensitivity.
Warning Signs of Worsening Light Sensitivity
Every person experiences photophobia differently, so it can be difficult to identify the signs that your symptoms may be changing for the worse. It can depend on the baseline of your current sensitivity, the condition(s) that is causing it, and numerous other factors. Still, there are potential indicators to watch out for, such as:
- More intense and/or longer lasting pain from light exposure
- New and/or abnormal responses, symptoms due to light exposure
- Current protections for light sensitivity (e.g. sunglasses for outdoors) are less effective
- Heightened sensitivities before and/or after attacks or episodes
- Certain environments and/or light sources that were not considered problematic have become triggers
Possible Causes of Increased Light Sensitivity
You’re exposed to more environmental triggers. If you find your light sensitivity is getting worse, it could be that you are being subjected to triggers in the environment at a greater volume and/or duration. For example, you may experience a change in your photophobia if you recently switched workspaces which now feature bright, fluorescent lighting—a known trigger for episodes of light sensitivity. In addition, it doesn’t necessarily have to be an increase in light exposure; a surge in non-light triggers can be enough to create more symptomatic periods, which can result in more photophobia too.
Your condition (or the cause of light sensitivity) may be worsening. There is evidence that some chronic conditions can worsen over time. Children who are diagnosed with migraine often experience a worsening of their attacks as they enter adulthood; some people have their migraine transform into a different type of migraine (e.g. migraine without aura morphing into vestibular migraine) with new or altered symptoms. So, with a higher frequency and/or severity of attacks, you can similarly feel as though light sensitivity has become a growing concern as well.
There may be several reasons why your condition worsens; for example, the brain has been shown to undergo physiological changes in people with chronic migraine over time, which could contribute to patient experiences. In other cases, this progression of the disorder may just be part of its evolution without any obvious explanation.
Your condition is untreated or less responsive to treatment. Certainly if no remedies are put in place to improve a light-sensitive condition, you may see a deterioration of your symptoms. Furthermore, it is not unusual to hear stories from patients who describe that their primary treatment approaches become less and less effective over time, especially if they had previously been successful in improving their photophobia. If your medications stop working, you may notice that your sensitivity to light (along with other symptoms) is worsening as a result.
You have developed comorbid conditions or complications. Photophobia is associated with a variety of conditions, from migraine and brain injuries to numerous emotional disorders. If you are already light sensitive, and you are then diagnosed with another condition like anxiety, the risk of aggravating your sensitivities grows. For example, people with an existing primary headache disorder who then have a concussion may subsequently feel a greater impact of light sensitivity as a result. Dry eye disease, injury to the eye or other eye disorders, fibromyalgia and others can all compound the outcomes of people with sensory sensitivities.
In rare cases, the sudden and dramatic increase in light sensitivity might reflect a more serious condition, such as a tumor. We encourage people with rapid escalation of symptoms, especially abnormal ones, to seek immediate medical attention.
Your eyes are experiencing the effects of age. As we get older, our eyes develop more problems that can enhance photophobia. From disorders like glaucoma and general visual decline to specific procedures that correct or slow these complications (e.g. LASIK or cataract surgery), the cumulative effect of these experiences can negatively impact how our eyes process light.
There is a delayed onset of light sensitivity from a prior condition. In some cases, light sensitivity can develop or worsen unexpectedly without an obvious cause—when in fact, it stems from a condition or injury that occurred days, weeks or even months earlier. For people with moderate or severe traumatic brain injuries, photophobia may develop within the first three years, even if it was not a primary symptom right after the injury. Viral infections can also manifest light sensitivity symptoms much later, even after the acute recovery has passed.
You have avoided light for long periods of time. Dark adaptation is a real problem for people with photophobia, and it occurs when you avoid most (or all) light for long periods of time. This commonly includes the complete removal of light from your home or wearing sunglasses indoors every day. In effect, your eyes adjust to the darker environment, which makes light seem extra bright when it is re-introduced. Thankfully, it takes more than a few hours of light avoidance to develop dark adaptation, and even if you are feeling its effects, there is evidence that your brain can reset and recover with time—and more light!
Your medications are exacerbating your photophobia. While it tends to be rare, certain medications have been shown to bring about light sensitivity as a side effect, and so it is possible they could make existing symptoms worse.
Addressing Changes in Light Sensitivity
It is completely natural to express concern over a change in your photophobia, but it is very possible that there is a legitimate cause or explanation. In addition, there is a major difference between a short-term worsening of your light sensitivity—such as feeling more pain from light exposure during the acute phase of a migraine attack—and a longer term change that should be addressed. Regardless, if you are concerned about your increased sensitivity to light, we have some suggestions for how to address it.
- Solicit a doctor’s opinion: Your primary care doctor or neurologist/specialist can hopefully help pinpoint the reason for the increase in symptoms as well as establish a treatment regimen.
- Develop and evolve your treatment approach: If you have a diagnosed condition that is causing your photophobia and you have been prescribed medication or other therapies, make sure you take them as directed. But don’t be afraid to switch up your treatment plan if your light sensitivity is still increasing and the current options are not working. The treatment process is a constant work-in-progress!
- Get frequent eye exams: You want to make sure your eyes are healthy, given the importance of their role in the onset of light sensitivity. Regular eye exams can help identify any issues that could lead to problems down the road.
- Seek emergency care if appropriate: If your light sensitivity is sudden onset with extreme pain and/or other symptoms (particularly new symptoms), it may warrant emergency medical attention.
- Identify and minimize external triggers: If your increased photophobia is due in part to an environmental change, it is important to take steps to reduce the impact of those triggers. This may include reducing your overall exposure and/or taking the necessary accommodations to improve your outcomes.
- Try blue-light filtering light sensitivity glasses: Blue light is all around us in our screens, fluorescent and LED bulbs and in natural daylight, and certain wavelengths activate people with photophobia. TheraSpecs are the premier brand of light sensitivity glasses that cut out the most triggering blue light and provide enhanced protection.
- Keep light in the equation as much as possible: As tempting as it might be to cut out all light in your life when it is aggravating your pain constantly, you have to remember that long-term avoidance is going to do more harm than good for your photophobia.