Ultraviolet (UV) light therapy has been used for centuries to help in the treatment of many skin conditions, disorders and diseases. While exposure to excessive UV rays can be harmful and it is important to protect our eyes and skin with appropriate sunglasses and sunblock, specific amounts of UV light can be prescribed for various medical treatments.
Uses of UV Light Therapy
Whether UV light is natural, in the form of sunlight, or artificially created through medical devices, it can be used to treat:
- Psoriasis, a chronic skin condition with silvery-pinkish scales especially over the extensors (elbows and knees) and genital areas
- Neonatal jaundice, a yellowish discoloration of skin due to deposits of liver proteins especially in infants
- Skin eczema
- Acne vulgaris
- Persistent itching (chronic pruritis)
- Vitiligo, white patches of skin secondary to loss of skin pigment
- Graft-versus-host disease, a complication associated with some cases of bone marrow transplants
- Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, which is a rare form of cancer involving the skin
The UV Light Therapy Procedure
UV light therapy is generally given in multiple therapeutic sessions, either in a clinic setting or at home. It can be given on a daily basis or every other day, depending on the response and need of each patient. Each UV light session can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.
UV light therapy is administered through various types of devices. It can be applied to large areas of the body using full-body units, such as light beds or body-sized cabinets. It can also be applied to smaller body areas, such as limbs, using arm or leg units. Smaller, hand-held devices can deliver the UV light rays to targeted, limited areas of the body. There are specialized combs that can deliver UV light to the scalp. In cases of neonatal jaundice, UV light can be located in the roof of infant incubators. When undergoing treatment with any of these machines, precautions should always be taken to prevent the unnecessary exposure of UV light to healthy skin.
Advantages of UV Light Therapy
It is still not completely clear how UV light works and why is it beneficial for some skin conditions and not others. However, it is believed that UV light therapy slows down the overgrowth of some skin cells, altering the function of the immune system, which helps many skin conditions and wounds to improve or completely heal.
Who Is a Candidate for UV Light Therapy?
In addition to the skin conditions mentioned above, it is reported that UV light can also help improve some depression disorders, especially the seasonal type known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which responds very well to sunlight exposure. Candidates are patients with no skin cancers and those who are not taking any photosensitive medications.
UV light therapy should not be given longer than instructed, as it can damage the skin cells and collagen and destroy vitamin A and C in the skin. UV light also limits the formation of free radicals in skin. UV light can cause skin dryness, irritation, sunburn, unwanted brownish discoloration of skin, nausea and headache. UV light therapy should be avoided in patients with migraines or those taking photosensitive medications such as tetracycline, isotretinoin, vitamin A derivatives and others. Prolonged exposure to UV light can be a risk factor for developing skin cancer; thus patients undergoing UV light therapy should get an annual examination for skin cancer by a dermatologist.
The key to success is complying with the treatment plan prescribed by a doctor. It usually takes about a dozen UV light therapy sessions to achieve adequate results. Once the condition has improved, patients may switch to a less-frequent maintenance schedule instead of the daily sessions. In some cases, maintenance therapy can be administered through home UV units.