Many people suffer from light sensitivity, or photophobia. This means that certain sources of light may cause them to feel discomfort or pain. But is there anything that can be done about it? Fortunately, yes!
It may be possible for your eye doctor to order “light sensitivity contacts.” Depending on the source of your photophobia, scleral contact lenses may provide some relief. They are designed to fit irregularly shaped and dry corneas, which can sometimes cause light sensitivity.
Therapeutic tinted contact lenses and photochromic (“transition”) lenses that darken when exposed to light are other potential options. Below we’ll discuss light sensitivity, who may experience it, and why certain contact lenses might be a great option for you.
What Is Light Sensitivity?
A person with light sensitivity experiences discomfort and sometimes even pain when exposed to natural (sunlight) or artificial light (fluorescent or LED light, etc.).
It’s possible for a person with photophobia to be more sensitive to one type of light or to have a “brightness threshold” so to speak. For example, you may have trouble with sunlight but feel comfortable indoors with fluorescent and incandescent lights (or vice versa).
Or you may be triggered by bright light but able to tolerate a room with dim, soft light. When affected, you may also feel the need to close your eyes or squint in an attempt to block the light from your eyes.
What Causes Light Sensitivity?
Photophobia can be brought on by a wide variety of eye conditions, medical conditions, and external factors. Causes of light sensitivity can include:
- Dry eye disease
- Ocular inflammation from uveitis, iritis, conjunctivitis, etc.
- Corneal abrasions, ulcers, and diseases
- Retinal diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa and cone dystrophy
- Eye injury or infection
- Certain drugs and medications
- Overuse of contact lenses or regular use of improperly fitting contacts
- Eye surgery
- Traumatic brain injury and concussion
- Blepharospasm (involuntary eyelid movement)
- Anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, and other mental health conditions
Irregular astigmatism is a refractive error that is sometimes associated with light sensitivity. This type of astigmatism occurs when the cornea or lens has an irregular shape, affecting the eye’s ability to perceive and focus light. This causes blurry vision at all distances, along with glare and halos on nearby lights. This makes it especially difficult to see clearly while driving at night.
Since photophobia is often a symptom of another condition, it may be referred to more specifically as migraine light sensitivity, astigmatism light sensitivity, and so on.
Can Contact Lenses Help with Light Sensitivity?
Some people prefer to wear contacts because their eyeglasses seem to exaggerate the effects of glare under bright light. What most people don’t realize is that there are a few more specialized types of contact lenses that may be able to provide even more relief from light sensitivity.
Scleral Contact Lenses
Scleral contact lenses are hard, gas permeable lenses specially designed for contact lens wearers who experience trouble or discomfort with standard contacts. Larger than typical soft lenses, scleral contacts form a dome over the cornea and rest on the sclera (the white of your eye).
The bigger surface area allows for a smoother, more comfortable fit, ideal for conditions like dry eye disease, keratoconus, and astigmatism. These lenses also seal in moisture, helping to keep the cornea lubricated. The larger lens size can also improve light sensitivity because it helps reduce the amount of glare the wearer experiences.
Therapeutic Tinted Contact Lenses
Another option to ask your doctor about is therapeutic tinted contact lenses for light sensitivity. These lenses are specially tinted to filter the intense light that can cause eye strain and headaches. Your doctor may also refer to these as prosthetic lenses.
There are three types of therapeutic tinted lenses, each of which is typically worn for a year before replacing:
Tinted transparent soft contacts – These are the least expensive and easiest to replace because they are tinted one color throughout. Some companies offer a “migraine tint” in a shade similar to lavender or red. You can try this to see if it helps, but you might find that another shade gives you more relief.
Computer-generated opaque soft contacts – These are the middle-ground tinted lenses. With computer-created patterns in multiple colors and pupil sizes, you have more options to choose from for a slightly more natural look. Once you decide what works best, they are easy to replace and reorder as needed.
Custom hand-painted soft contacts – These are the most expensive and hardest to replace. They’re customized to match your eyes as closely as possible, so they look the most natural. But this also means they take the longest to receive.
The best way to get therapeutic tinted contact lenses is through your eye doctor, who will likely order through one of these companies:
- ABB Optical (Concise Colors)
- Orion Vision Group (bioMed® Therapeutic Tints)
- Bausch + Lomb (Alden HP Prosthetic)
- Cantor + Nissel (Cantor Prosthetic)
- Specialty Tint (ComforTints)
Photochromic Contact Lenses
If hand-painted contacts seem like a bit more than you bargained for, that’s OK. There’s another option that may be closer to the contacts you wear now. Photochromic contact lenses have a special molecule that causes them to darken (or activate) when exposed to sunlight. Then they turn clear again when you’re back indoors.
Several studies have found that photochromic contacts can reduce glare discomfort in wearers even when they’re inside and the lenses aren’t activated. It’s possible that even when the lenses are clear, the filter they provide is still able to make surrounding light seem less bright.
If you think this could help with your light sensitivity, ask your eye doctor if Acuvue Oasys® with Transitions™ might work for you. (These are the only photochromic contacts on the market — for now.) If your exam and lens fitting go well, you can order your supply of Transitions contacts directly from ContactsDirect.
Other Ways to Reduce Light Sensitivity
Specialty contact lenses aren’t the only way to relieve light sensitivity. Here are some other things you can do to prevent and manage this bothersome, and sometimes painful, symptom:
- Dim the lights if you’re indoors.
- Wear sunglasses with 100% UV protection and dark lenses when you go outside.
- Purchase frames that have more “face form” and allow less light in from the sides as this can cause reflections. Wraparounds are a good example of this.
- Wear a hat or cap to reduce glare.
- Avoid looking at bright reflective surfaces like water and pavement when you’re out and about.
- Update your home with lighting that feels most comfortable for you.
- Monitor your screen time and be sure to take breaks during long periods of digital screen use.
If you’re worried about your light sensitivity or have any other concerns about your vision, make an appointment for a comprehensive eye exam. Your eye doctor will assess your vision and eye health so they can determine possible causes of the issue and your best options for relief.
- Photophobia (light sensitivity) All About Vision. March 2019.
- Photophobia Mount Sinai. May 2023.
- How people with astigmatism see light All About Vision. August 2020.
- Colored contacts: More than a pretty eye Review of Cornea & Contact Lenses. February 2020.
- 2022 annual contact lenses and lens care guide Review of Cornea & Contact Lenses. August 2022.
- The effect of a photochromic contact lens on visual function indoors: A randomized, controlled trial Optometry and Vision Science. July 2020.
- Effect of photochromic contact lens wear on indoor visual performance and patient satisfaction Ophthalmology and therapy. October 2022.
- A contra-lateral comparison of the visual effects of a photochromic vs. non-photochromic contact lens Contact Lens & Anterior Eye. November 2019.