What is photophobia? You probably know what phobias are; they’re fears! So is photophobia a fear of photos? Well, not quite. Maybe it’s a fear of photons? Well, not quite, but we’re getting closer. “Photo” is more or less the Greek word for light. Is photophobia a fear of light, then? Well, not actually. You see, I’ve misled you from the start here; I apologize. While normally, phobia means fear, in this case it just means aversion; photophobia is an aversion to light.

This aversion can come in a lot of different forms, from discomfort to outright pain; it is, of course, only felt if you look at the light. There can be a lot of reasons for this discomfort, from an overexcited optic nerve to too much light entering into the eye, one of the many reasons you should never stare directly at the sun. People with lighter eye colours tend to be more prone to photophobia, and those with albinism are quite likely to have some sensitivity to light. There are light-filtering shields you can place over your glasses to reduce the impact of your photophobia, but the best way of treating the symptom is to find the underlying problem and cure it. The cause of photophobia can generally be found in the eye or in the nervous system.

I’m a very occasional migraine sufferer, but when I get them, they can be brutal. One of the most painful things about my migraines is the photophobia, a symptom that many sufferers experience. Meningitis can also cause photophobia. Those on the autism spectrum are also more likely to suffer from light sensitivity.

Ocular problems are, of course, one of the most important causes of photophobia. After any surgery on or around your eye, you’ll likely be advised to avoid looking at bright lights for a period of time; that’s because when your eye has undergone a surgical procedure, it becomes much more sensitive to light. Simple illnesses like conjunctivitis, and damage to the eye like corneal abrasions, can also cause you to become more sensitive to light.

Drugs and drug withdrawal can also aggravate light sensitivity. Some benzodiazepines, commonly used for treating anxiety and sleep disorders, can cause photophobia in some patients. Withdrawal from a variety of drugs can also cause problems; even caffeine users will report increased photophobia when they haven’t had their daily cup of joe.

Photophobia will generally come and go; it’s a symptom of an underlying problem, and doesn’t tell you a lot about the problem itself. For migraine sufferers, the solution is to treat the migraine. For people experiencing withdrawal, the solution is either to wait it out or to drink another cup of coffee. When you’ve scratched all the obvious reasons for photophobia off your list, but it remains persistent, it’s time for an eye exam. Photophobia is rarely chronic, so long-lasting sensitivity could mean you have a health problem you’re unaware of.