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Eczema treatment: Phototherapy

Phototherapy therapy

If your child’s eczema covers a large area or treatment you apply to the skin fails to work, your child’s dermatologist may recommend phototherapy.

severe eczema on abdomen

Why do dermatologists recommend this treatment for children?

Your child’s dermatologist may recommend phototherapy if your child’s eczema:

  • Remains (after being treated with medicine you applied to the skin)

  • Covers a large amount of skin

Phototherapy uses ultraviolet (UV) light to:

  • Reduce the inflammation (redness, swelling, heat)

  • Ease the itch

If sunlight causes your child’s eczema to flare, tell the dermatologist.

Safety and effectiveness

  • Studies show that phototherapy can safely and effectively treat children with eczema.

  • Phototherapy can reduce stubborn eczema. In some cases, it clears the skin.

  • Phototherapy can reduce your child’s need for medicine applied to the skin.

  • Phototherapy may increase the risk of developing skin cancer later in life, but this risk seems low.

  • To reduce possible side effects, a dermatologist controls many aspects of the treatment: This includes the amount of time spent in the phototherapy booth and the type of phototherapy received.

If your child’s dermatologist prescribes phototherapy, you should not let your child use a tanning bed. There are many differences between phototherapy and tanning beds.

How it works

Certain wavelengths of UV light affect the immune system. By carefully exposing a child to these wavelengths for a precise time, dermatologists can stop the body’s reaction that leads to inflamed skin.

How to use

  • You take your child to a phototherapy treatment center.

  • You’ll take your child for treatment 2 to 3 times per week for a few weeks to months.

  • If you cannot take your child to a phototherapy treatment center, ask your child’s dermatologist about other ways to treat the eczema.

  • Phototherapy may be your child’s only treatment, or it may be used along with other treatment for eczema.

  • Taking your child to a tanning salon rather than a phototherapy treatment center places your child in danger. Indoor tanning exposes people to dangerous amounts of UV radiation, which greatly increases the risk of developing skin cancer.

How does phototherapy differ from indoor tanning?

Indoor tanning may seem like a convenient alternative, but phototherapy differs from indoor tanning in many ways:

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves medical UV phototherapy lamps and devices. It does not approve indoor tanning devices.

  • While the FDA does not approve indoor tanning equipment, it can place restrictions on products deemed dangerous. In 2014, the FDA placed stricter regulations on indoor tanning equipment. Tanning beds and sunlamps will be required to display a warning label. This label must include the message that tanning lamps are not recommended for people younger than 18 years.

  • A dermatologist closely monitors and supervises phototherapy to minimize each patient’s risk.

  • A phototherapy technician controls the UV exposure that your child receives. This control is not possible with tanning beds and sunlamps.

  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) states that claims made by the Indoor Tanning Association about the health benefits of tanning are false and misleading.

Possible side effects

Your child’s dermatologist considers many aspects before prescribing phototherapy. This includes your child’s skin type, amount of eczema on the skin, and medical history. This lowers the risk of side effects.

Like all medical treatments, phototherapy has possible side effects. These include:

  • Red or tender skin

  • Skin burns or stings

While the following side effects can occur, they are uncommon:

  • Age spots and other signs of aging like wrinkles

  • Skin reaction that causes acne-like outbreak

  • Skin cancer

When should I call my child’s dermatologist?

  • Your child’s eczema remains the same despite treatment.

  • The eczema worsens.

  • You are unable to keep the phototherapy appointments.

  • You child has a side effect.

Related AAD resources

Getty Images

Gambichler T, Breuckmann F, et al. “Narrowband UVB phototherapy in skin conditions beyond psoriasis.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;52:660-70.

Sidbury R, Davis DM, et al. “Guidelines of care for the management of atopic dermatitis, Part 3: Guidelines of care for the management and treatment of atopic dermatitis with phototherapy and systemic agents.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014 Aug;71(2):327-49.