How is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) treated?

Your provider will talk to you about treatment options. You may need a combination of treatments, including:

  • Phototherapy: Bright light therapy, using a special lamp, can treat SAD.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A type of talk therapy called CBT can also effectively treat SAD. Research has shown that CBT produces the longest-lasting effects of any treatment approach.
  • Antidepressant medication: Sometimes, providers recommend medication for depression, either alone or with light therapy.
  • Spending time outdoors: Getting more sunlight can help improve symptoms. Try to get out during the day. Also increase the amount of sunlight that enters your home or office.
  • Vitamin D: A vitamin D supplement may help improve symptoms.

How does light therapy work?

To use light therapy, or phototherapy, you get a special lamp. It has white fluorescent light tubes covered with a plastic screen to block ultraviolet rays. The light is about 20 times brighter than regular indoor light. The intensity of light emitted should be 10,000 lux.

To use phototherapy, don’t look directly into the light. Place the lamp about 2 or 3 feet away while you read, eat or do other activities.

What time of day should I use light therapy?

When you use light therapy may impact how effective it is. Morning light therapy seems to work better. Plus, using it later in the day may cause insomnia. Many health professionals recommend 10,000 lux for 15 to 30 minutes every morning.

How long will it take light therapy to work?

People who use a lamp for SAD often see results within two to four days. It may take about two weeks to reach the full benefits.

How long do I use light therapy for?

Healthcare providers often recommend using light therapy through the entire winter. SAD symptoms can return quickly after stopping light therapy. Continuing to use the therapy can help you feel your best throughout the season.

Is light therapy safe?

Light therapy is typically safe and well-tolerated. But you may need to avoid light therapy if you:

  • Have diabetes or retinopathies: If you have diabetes or a retina condition, there’s a potential risk of damaging the retina, the back of your eye.
  • Take some medications: Certain antibiotics and anti-inflammatories can make you more sensitive to sunlight. Light therapy can then cause harm.
  • Have bipolar disorder: Bright light therapy can trigger hypomania or mania, uncontrolled boosts in mood and energy level. People with bipolar disorder need medical supervision to use light therapy.

What are the side effects of light therapy?

You may experience:

Can I use a tanning bed instead of light therapy to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

Don’t use tanning beds to treat SAD. Tanning beds do generate enough light, but they can cause other harm. They produce a high amount of UV rays that can hurt your skin and eyes.

What type of antidepressants can help with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

Medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can treat SAD. They improve mood by regulating serotonin levels in your body.

Another approved antidepressant called bupropion comes as an extended-release tablet. It can prevent seasonal depression episodes when people take it daily from fall to early spring.

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