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iPhone screens are like laser beams to migraineur eyes

Awhile back, I wrote a post for about how I sometimes realize I have a migraine only when I’m in a public restroom and that awful automatic hand dryer goes off.  “Aha!” I think then. “This noise is always annoying, but today it’s making me feel as if nails are being jammed into my head.  I must have a migraine.”

Other senses can be attacked in this same way, of course.  Just a couple of months ago I was driving Jim and me home from somewhere—it was still winter, and it was dark out.  He was in the passenger seat and took out his iPhone for a second.  The moment he clicked the button to activate the phone, it felt as if a flash of lightning struck my right eye.  I immediately put my hand alongside my temple, creating a shield between my eye and the bright light of the screen.  “Ow!” I said suddenly, not even speaking aloud on purpose—it was a gut reaction.  “What’s wrong?”  “Your phone light is…ow…so bright.”  He tilted it away from me a little, but even seeing it in the passenger window reflected back at me, it hurt.  He apologized but was a little confused—why did this action, one I usually didn’t complain about, to him suddenly become intolerable to me?

We got home and I soon had to take abortive migraine medication. I realized only then that his bright phone screen, always a little bit of a nuisance when it’s dark out, was turned into a weapon that night because I was in the beginning stages of a migraine.

In this case, I don’t think the light from the phone screen was the trigger for the migraine; rather, my senses were heightened due to a migraine episode that had already started.

In retrospect, this sort of thing has been happening to me for a very long time.  I remember my freshman year of college (before my migraine diagnosis but a full five or six years into my then-regular migraine attacks) when I lived with a girl who loved wearing perfume.  Normally it didn’t bother me, but one day I got home from an evening poetry class right as she was leaving to go out. She’d put on her perfume and we passed each other in the hallway.  When I got to our bedroom, the smell was overpowering. I’m sure she only sprayed it a few times, but the scent was unbearable. What was normally a pleasant, light scent transformed into a cloying, intolerable smell. I tried to bury my face in my pillow, and within a half-hour the headache I was getting made itself known as a full-fledged migraine.

I’ve asked this before and was fascinated by the conversation that ensued, so I’ll ask again: will you tell us a story of a time when you only realized a migraine was on its way because you had a sudden, severe intolerance for a certain sight, smell, taste, or sound?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • shine4him
    6 years ago

    My main intolerance is sugar. It’s fine when I don’t have a migraine. But if I’m about to start one or have one, eating any will make it 10x more intense within minutes. 😛

    I guess I’m lucky that I don’t get scent sensitivity, and light & sound are issues only during my worst attacks.

  • shine4him
    6 years ago

    Haha, I guess I got my emoticons mixed up. That was not supposed to have been a smiley! 🙁

  • GayleAngel
    6 years ago

    One of my major triggers is with flashing lights. Try driving at night and come upon police cars with all their lights flashing. Bright lights are bad enough but the flashing lights will immediately put me into a full blown migraine. I must look suspicious as I drive by shading my eyes. Florescent lights drive me nuts with their flickering. Working in an older office building proved impossible for me. Having trouble finding light bulbs for the house that don’t hurt my eyes and give me at least an immediate headache at best and a full blown migraine at the worst.
    I sincerely appreciate everyone sharing their stories. For most of my life I felt alone in my suffering. I now have a wonderful neurologist who changed my meds and helped me identify most of my triggers.

  • MahtaMouse
    6 years ago

    The early spring sunlight strobing through the new spring leaves on “the lake road” to town used to trigger a migraine before I was even 1/2 way to town. Bright sunlight in general. I cut down on my migraines by wearing sunglasses even in winter, rain or shine (I live in Western Washington (state) where we’re known more for our rainy days than our sunny days). I also avoid the candle aisle in stores and the lavender aisle at the Flower & Garden Show. And Patchouli! That wretched smell from the 60’s apparently is back some idiot women who must bathe in it!

    A few years ago, I spent the day at a museum with my brother and aunt. Afterwards we went out to eat. Just the act of walking in from the dark night and into a lit up restaurant caused a migraine to hit me like a sudden hot knife through my brain. I had to go lay down in the backseat of the car, where I seriously considered laying outside in the cold damp grass to try and sooth my splitting head.

    Laying there in the back seat, the parking lot lights were making me sicker by the minute and just as I was contemplating where I was going to throw up, my brother and aunt came back, there dinners in “to go” boxes. Even in the trunk of the car, I could smell that food! My poor brother must have drove like a bat out of hell to get me home as he took those corners pretty sharp! All the while those street lights and the smell of the food in the trunk was more than I could bear.

    Once I get hit with a migraine, all bets are off. Lights, smells and sounds only serve to make me sicker. Naproxen and caffeine are my savior and if taken in sufficient quantities, can allow me to eventually fall asleep and sleep it off.

  • TracyM09
    6 years ago

    I certainly understand your phone light, perfume situation! I was shopping one day and merely walked through a cloud of Men’s cologne (not even near the cologne department), I knew immediately what was coming!! Not even 5 minutes later it hit me like a train! I have a problem with cologne and body odor (ugh) in elevators, I seem to always follow someone who seemingly bathes in cologne or perfume or doesn’t bathe at all!! Ironically, it happens a lot in the Hospital when I go to appointments for Migraines!!

    I have to say that my sensitivities are always on, I may not even have a Migraine, however, I’m still overly sensitive to light, noise, and smells, heat etc…I don’t think the sensitivities are ever going to go away.

  • JeanyB
    6 years ago

    A few years ago I started getting facial pain. This facial pain would then turn into migraine. I have had migraine most of my life. This caused problems at work and eventually I reduced my hours and was prescribed propranolol, nortriptyline and also topiramate! My work involved using computers/screens and I decided to work from home on a laptop. The pain got worse and I went off sick for three months.
    I was eventually able to go back to the office to work.
    Just before being made redundant I found information regarding Pulse Wave Modulation, this controls the brightness on the screen of some monitors and can cause invisible flicker, reducing the brightness of your screen increases the flicker. Was this the cause of my facial pain?
    There is little research that I can find on this subject. I need to be careful to make sure I use monitors that do not used PWM to control the brightness.
    I always reduce the brightness of screens which can be the wrong thing to do in this situation.

  • Luna
    6 years ago

    Sometimes during a migraine while in a dark room at night with my eyes covered see a really bright white light. Have to open my eyes to get rid of it. When I was very young I would see beautiful colored patterns moving on the wall, eyes opened and closed. Course they were sinus headaches in the 1950s.

  • Brian in TN
    6 years ago

    Frequently when I’m driving my wife will cough and it feels like she’s leaning into my ear when she does, seems as loud as a gunshot. How do you complain about a normal bodily function?

  • Lori B
    6 years ago

    Last fall, I had a “new” predictor that a migraine was starting. I’ve always had a sound sensitivity to electrical equipment—that horrible hum from overhead lights, TVs, computers, printers. Added to this was a smell indicator. I would smell tobacco smoke, even though I live in a smoke-free house, work in a smoke-free building and all restaurants and bars are smoke-free as well where I live. It’s a phantom smell that has no origin.

  • Lori B
    6 years ago

    Katie –
    Thanks for pointing me to the article! It has just been recently that I’ve identified that I do have auras sometimes. I hadn’t correlated the “fireworks” I see when my eyes are closed to a visual disturbance; I always had the impression that the visual disturbances were something experienced during normal sight.

    It’s nice to know that smelling smoke doesn’t mean I’m losing my mind

  • Katie M. Golden moderator
    6 years ago

    You are not alone in smelling smoke that doesn’t exist as part of your prodrome.
    Here’s a great article about a study that was done a few years ago on this phenomenon.

  • migrainestl
    6 years ago

    My 1st true migraine experience (before I was diagnosed), I was bring driven to the ER & laying in the passenger seat around midnight. Each street lamp we passed made me sick to my stomach. Even covering my eyes didn’t block it all out.

    Now that I live w/ chronic migraines I usually keep the blinds closed, my iPhone light turned to the min, the tv volume low, avoid perfume, keep earplugs in my purse for suddenly loud situations (stores, restaurants, etc). I know I’m sicker than I realized or getting worse when one of the above sends a searing sickness to my stomach in seconds.

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