Vitiligo Treatment Q&A: Light Therapy
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Looking to treat your spots? Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is one of the most commonly used – and effective – forms of treatment to help re-pigment vitiligo. What is light therapy exactly? How does it work? And what do you need to know? Daavlin, a company that has been providing phototherapy solutions for vitiligo since 1981, has the answers.
What is light therapy?
Light therapy is the use of light to treat a condition and is frequently used to treat vitiligo in addition to psoriasis and other skin disorders. In vitiligo, patches of white skin are given regular, brief exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light that is emitted from a medical device. The UV rays stimulate the melanocytes, which are the cells in the skin responsible for producing pigment. As a result, color can return to the skin.
Are there types of light therapy?
Yes, there are several types of light therapy including narrow-band UVB, broad-band UVB and PUVA. However, the most effective and widely used option for vitiligo patients today is narrow-band UVB, which emits a narrow range of UV wavelengths. Due to its safety profile, narrowband UVB is the gold standard light treatment and the first choice for patients treating more than 10% of their body surface.
How does it work?
Phototherapy is administered either in a physician’s office or at home with a home phototherapy device. Light therapy units range in size from small, hand-held wands to full-body panels or cabinets. The number of sessions required each week depends on the severity and progression of vitiligo spots. Typically, treatment requires two to three sessions a week, although each session can take only a few minutes. The length of a session will gradually increase as you progress based on your skin’s reaction to the light. During treatment, patients expose their vitiligo to the light therapy for a specified amount of time and using a specified amount of light monitored or prescribed by the dermatologist. Repigmentation will take the form of freckles and spread to fill a white patch.
Do you wear any protective gear during light therapy?
Yes, you should always wear UV-protecting goggles when doing light therapy. Exposure to the UV light emitted during light therapy can burn the eyes, which will cause them to feel gritty and uncomfortable. In addition, prolonged exposure to the light over time can cause cataracts. The exception to using goggles is when you are treating the area around your eyes. The human eyelid is thick enough that it is impenetrable by the UV rays – therefore it’s safe to treat the eye socket region with the eye closed.
Will light therapy make your normal skin tan?
No, light therapy does not tan your normal skin. Narrowband UVB light is a quick, intense form of light treatment, which means that it does not have the same tanning effect of natural sunlight. While there may be a slight chance of increased pigmentation around the area being treated, this is unlikely. In general, you should not apply sunscreen before treatment unless specified by your doctor. However, you might talk to your doctor about applying sunscreen to the normal skin surrounding your spots if you are worried about tanning.
Is light therapy safe?
Yes, light therapy is safe when administered correctly. The process for administration of light therapy is key to not only safety but also treatment success. With too much light, or overdosing, skin can experience sun burn. However, with too little light, or underdosing, vitiligo may not experience repigmentation as quickly. To prevent over or underdosing, you start out at a recommended dose and gradually increase as your skin adapts and reacts to the light.
Is light therapy effective?
Yes, light therapy is the most effective form of treatment for vitiligo today. However, treatment is a long-term process that requires consistency. According to Daavlin, the typical response time is 25% repigmentation after three months and 50% repigmentation after six months. The average patient might take a year or longer to see full repigmentation of vitiligo. Timing and the presence of hair follicles are two factors that influence treatment success. In general, the sooner a patient seeks treatment, the easier it is to achieve repigmentation. In addition, the presence of hair follicles can increase chances for repigmentation as that’s where melanocytes reside. As a result, treating the feet, hands, lips, and eye sockets can be challenging because of the lack of hair follicles. It’s also important to note that vitiligo is a chronic disease and that light therapy is also not a cure. Therefore, if treatment stops, vitiligo spots could reappear.
Does light therapy have side effects?
While research shows few side effects of phototherapy, it is possible to experience stinging or irritation of the skin. In addition, skin may develop a sunburn as a result of the light.
Is light therapy expensive?
The expense of light therapy depends largely on insurance benefits. If you are seeking treatment at a doctor’s office, there will be co-pay to consider. Although individual co-pay prices may be low, these fees, paid multiple times a week and for several months, could add up. If you seek home phototherapy, you need to consider the cost of the unit. Home units range in sizes and prices range accordingly. The size of unit needed will depend on the surface area being treated. While some insurance companies cover the cost of these units, some do not and may have medical policies that exclude vitiligo treatment from being covered at all. To ease the financial burden, Daavlin offers unit discounts and payment plans. In addition, Daavlin’s team of insurance specialists can offer advice and verify insurance benefits with no cost or obligation.
What if I don’t have time to go to an office every day?
For many people, traveling to a doctor’s office for treatment multiple times a week – and during office hours – is inconvenient and difficult. If in-office treatment doesn’t fit into your schedule, patients may have the option of purchasing a home unit. Units will typically be prescribed based on the size of body surface area being treated. Daavlin offers a complete line of home phototherapy devices ranging in size.
What are the pros and cons?
The biggest benefit? It’s effective. Narrow-band UVB light therapy is the most successful vitiligo treatment on the market today. However, treatments aren’t perfect. Light therapy comes with a significant time commitment as treatment needs to be administered multiple times a week. If the patient is seeking treatment at a dermatologist’s office, travel time and office hours need to be considered. In addition, like any treatment, results can reverse if treatment is not consistent.
What other questions do you have about light therapy?
Medical Disclaimer: This information is intended for informational purposes only. Consult with your doctor or a professional healthcare provider for medical advice, treatment or diagnosis.
Erika Page is the Founder and Editor of Living Dappled. After getting vitiligo at the age of seven, she lost 100% of her pigment to the condition and today lives with universal vitiligo.