Phototherapy is a form of treatment that uses ultraviolet light to treat skin conditions. Phototherapy can reduce the appearance of psoriasis and eczema symptoms. This form of treatment is safe for all ages and is a common treatment for newborn jaundice.
Phototherapy, also known as light therapy, is a common form of treatment that uses bright, ultraviolet (UV) lights on your exposed skin. Phototherapy can treat several types of skin conditions, including psoriasis and eczema.
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There are different types of ultraviolet (UV) light, or ultraviolet radiation, that are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The sun produces UV light that reaches the Earth. UV light helps you produce vitamin D, which is essential to help your body survive. Too much UV exposure can damage your skin.
The UV light used in phototherapy is the same type of light emitted from the sun. Your provider will control the strength of the light and monitor the length of time that your skin will have exposure to UV light to prevent skin damage.
There are different types of ultraviolet light for medical procedures based on the type of ultraviolet and the size of the wavelength:
There are different types of phototherapy lights available to treat different conditions. Each type uses a different color light:
Anyone can receive a phototherapy procedure if their provider prescribes it as a treatment for their diagnosis. Children and adults can receive phototherapy treatment.
Phototherapy is a safe form of treatment but there may be more risks of side effects if you have certain medical conditions. Your provider will let you know if phototherapy is safe for you. Phototherapy may not be recommended if:
Yes, phototherapy is a safe treatment option for babies. Babies who are born with jaundice have too much bilirubin in their bodies, which makes their skin and eyes look yellow. Blue UV light therapy helps babies get rid of the bilirubin so it doesn’t become harmful to them. You may even take a lamp or lighted blanket home when your newborn is discharged from the hospital. Babies are monitored carefully during treatment.
Phototherapy helps treat several conditions. The most common include:
Before your phototherapy procedure, your provider will set up the equipment in a hospital or a treatment center. They’ll give you protective eyewear to cover your eyes. You may need additional personal protective equipment depending on the location of your therapy, like a face shield or a blanket to cover parts of your body that aren’t receiving treatment. Your provider will give you sunscreen to put on your skin before your procedure. If you’re only getting treatment on part of your body, they’ll give you instructions on how and where you should apply the sunscreen. You may need to remove some or all of your clothing for this procedure depending on what’s being treated.
During a phototherapy procedure, your provider will verify that you’re wearing your personal protective equipment, like eye protection, before turning on the ultraviolet light. The way that the UV light passes on your skin is unique to each type of treatment:
Phototherapy procedure times vary depending on the size of your treatment area and the strength of UV light your provider uses. Repeated treatments are needed for the best results. Your first session could last a few seconds and your final session could last a few minutes with UVB therapy and up to an hour for UVA therapy. The length of time you’re treated and the total number of treatments you need can vary greatly depending on the disease and your skin. Your provider will help figure out your personal treatment plan.
After a phototherapy procedure, your provider will give you instructions on how you can protect your skin, which could include:
Phototherapy offers several benefits, including:
There are potential risks with phototherapy treatment that could include:
Your provider will talk to you about the risks and side effects before treatment. It’s also important to discuss any medications or supplements you take to be sure nothing interacts with your treatment.
After a phototherapy procedure, you can immediately go back to your normal activities. It takes multiple treatments to see results on your skin. Most people see improvements to their skin after six to eight treatments, but it could take between 15 and 25 treatments until you see results. Certain conditions treated with UVA light take much longer to treat.
Your provider will recommend you take steps to protect your skin from further UV exposure, especially from the sun, after treatment. You may experience some skin redness or hyperpigmentation, where your skin appears darker after treatment, this may go away after 24 hours. If you feel a burning sensation on your skin that lasts more than a couple of days after treatment, contact your provider.
Visit your healthcare provider if:
It’s common for newborns and babies to have jaundice even after phototherapy treatment. High levels of bilirubin (hyperbilirubinemia) in your baby’s blood cause jaundice. Too much bilirubin can cause permanent brain damage (kernicterus) if it’s not treated. Babies can get a skin test to see if they have too much bilirubin, and then a blood test to determine the cause of their jaundice. Your provider will decide if UV treatment is necessary and then they’ll keep checking the bilirubin level to be sure it’s getting better. After treatment, your baby will have bilirubin checked to be sure it doesn’t get high again.
Yes. If your newborn has jaundice and no other health complications, your provider might offer a treatment plan that lets you do phototherapy at home. You can use a phototherapy lamp or fiber-optic blanket (Biliblanket®) safely while staying in the comfort of your own home.
Some adults also use at-home phototherapy. People who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can have depressed mood during the winter, when there’s less sun. UV lamps replicate sunlight and are used to make your body think that it’s warmer and sunnier than it really is. This helps your body release serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that can improve your mood. Be sure to look for 10,000 lux lamps if you use one for SAD.
During at-home therapy, you and/or your baby must wear eye protection to prevent eye damage from the light.
Glutathione is an antioxidant that protects your cells from damage when they’re under stress. Some studies suggest that oral glutathione supplements or the topical glutathione patch can prevent damage to your cells caused by ultraviolet light. More research is necessary to determine if glutathione is safe and effective at preventing damage to your cells.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Phototherapy is a safe, painless and effective form of treatment for several skin conditions. Before starting treatment, talk to your healthcare provider about any medications or supplements you’re taking and the type of light therapy that’s best for you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/28/2022.
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