Sensitivity to Light

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2021

Thyroid eye disease (TED) often leads to light sensitivity or a painful reaction to light, known as photophobia. Sunlight, fluorescent light, and LED lighting can all lead to discomfort. Pain might be felt as intense sensitivity or headache. For some people, discomfort can be extreme, causing problems with vision.1

Why does TED cause sensitivity to light?

Light sensitivity usually occurs as a result of an irregular, dry eye surface that can cause light to scatter in many directions. The scattered light can cause discomfort and pain. In contrast, a smooth, moist eye surface focuses light without scattering.2,3

Swelling, irritation, and bulging of the eyes from TED can make it hard to blink. When you blink less often or have a hard time closing your eyes, the surface of your eyes gets dry. This can lead to light sensitivity.4

If you suddenly become sensitive to light or your sensitivity suddenly worsens, contact your TED specialist right away. This can be a sign that your condition has worsened or you have developed a different condition unrelated to TED.5

Reducing pain and sensitivity

TED can lead to dry, gritty, and irritated eyes that can worsen light sensitivity. However, there are things you can do to reduce your pain and sensitivity.

Use artificial tear eye drops

There are currently no prescription drugs used to treat light sensitivity. However, using an over-the-counter artificial tear eye drop might be helpful.1

When using these drops, the surface of your eyes can be refreshed, allowing light to focus without painful scattering. Your doctor or TED specialist can talk to you about which brands and types might be best for you, as there are many options available.1

Wear sunglasses

If you have sensitivity to light, it is best to avoid bright lights, both indoors and outdoors. Polarized or wrap-around sunglasses might help. These lenses help give your eyes extra protection against highly reflective light and surfaces. Also, wearing the right sunglasses can help protect your eyes from dust and other particles that can further irritate your eyes.1,4

Try prosthetic contact lenses

Prosthetic contact lenses are lenses you place in your eye. These special lenses can be used to help with light sensitivity because they cover the surface of your eye and help to block the excess light from entering the back of your eye. This helps reduce the glare from light and, in turn, reduces discomfort from excessive light.6

Prosthetic contact lenses are not right for everyone. Talk to your eye doctor or TED specialist about them to see if they might be right for you.6

Make changes at home

Some ways you can reduce discomfort at home include:4

  • Use dimmer switches to control the brightness
  • Replace light bulbs to soften the light
  • Use screen covers to reduce the brightness of computer screens, monitors, and other screens
  • Take frequent screen breaks from your computer, tablet, or phone. Looking at a screen can lead to eye fatigue and dryness, which will worsen light sensitivity.

Tracking your symptoms

Keeping track of your symptoms is important. TED affects everyone differently, and tracking your symptoms over time will help you and your TED specialist see minor changes that might be missed otherwise.4

Take selfie pictures for comparison, and write down any symptoms you are experiencing. Be sure to bring these to your appointments with your TED specialist.4

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