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What is Phototherapy?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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Phototherapy is a form of medical treatment in which some form of light is used to address a medical issue. You may also hear it referred to as “light therapy.” Most classically, ultraviolet light is used, although other forms of light may be used as well, depending on the condition which is being treated. Phototherapy has proved useful for a wide range of conditions.

Depending on the patient and the condition, phototherapy may be performed in a healthcare setting or at home. The advantage of going to a medical office is that the patient gets access to expensive, top of the line lamps, and the medical professional can precisely control the level of light the patient is exposed to, and the duration. However, people who require regular phototherapy treatments may prefer to purchase a lamp or lightbox for use at home.

Skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and acne sometimes benefit from phototherapy. Exposure to the light appears to trigger processes in the skin that reduce outbreaks. In acne treatment, for example, the light kills the bacteria that contribute to acne. Typically, it is combined with other forms of treatment for maximum effectiveness.

Babies born with jaundice are also treated with phototherapy. Jaundice in newborns is caused by a buildup of a pigment called bilirubin. Phototherapy helps the body convert the bilirubin into a form which can be urinated or excreted, allowing the baby's skin to return to a more usual color. Treatment for babies is usually conducted in a hospital immediately after birth, with staff keeping an eye on the baby to make sure that he or she is not struggling with other medical problems.

Some sleep labs recommend the use of phototherapy for sleep disorders, including jet lag. Controlled exposure to light can help to retrain the body, especially in environments where nights are extremely long, making it hard for people to rely on levels of light to determine their sleep schedules.

This treatment is also used for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that occurs in the winter, especially in cold regions at extreme latitudes. Regular phototherapy appears to help SAD patients achieve a more balanced mental state, with many patients mounting lightboxes at home so that they can engage in regular sessions. Some people undergo therapy two to three times a day in the peak of winter, when SAD can become very difficult to cope with.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By popcorn — On Jun 12, 2011

Can anyone tell me about their experience with trying phototherapy for skin conditions?

I am curious to know how well it can treat acne and how long it takes to notice results. With phototherapy do you have to treat your face several times a day, or is it usually just once a day?

Does anyone know if phototherapy on the face causes any painful side effects?

I read that it could cause premature aging, which is something I don't want, as I am trying to improve my appearance. I wonder if the premature aging is similar to those who tan too much, or if it is more severe.

By letshearit — On Jun 09, 2011

For those who are looking into phototherapy for a medical condition it is a good idea to try it in your own home, as it will save you a fortune when compared to the cost of doctor's visits. You can actually rent phototherapy light setups and try them out to see if it works for you. This option still isn't cheap, but it is less than a doctor.

Also, when you choose to rent phototherapy equipment, you may have the option of renting to own. So once you have rented it for a while, you can pay off the final difference in price and keep the product.

By SZapper — On Jun 09, 2011

One of my aunts has really terrible Seasonal Affective Disorder and unfortunately she lives in Alaska! For those of you who don't know for part of the winter it is dark in Alaska 24 hours a day. Obviously this would be extremely hard on someone with SAD.

Phototherapy has really helped my aunt. At first she was going to her doctor a few times a week but then she switched to home phototherapy. She did have to purchase a lamp but over time home phototherapy still costs much less than phototherapy at a doctors office.

My aunt is so much happier since beginning phototherapy I'm glad she decided to try it.

By KaBoom — On Jun 09, 2011

I think it's important to keep in mind that phototherapy light from the doctor isn't the same as the lights in a tanning bed! One of my good friends is completely addicted to tanning beds and she insists that the light is good for her.

I read an article that said tanning beds can actually be addictive because they make your body release hormones that make you happy. I'm sure this is why my friend thinks going tanning is "healthy".

I wish I could convince my friend to stop going because even though tanning makes her feel good tanning beds really increase the risk of skin cancer.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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