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Ultraviolet light treatment

This page tells you about ultraviolet light (UVA) treatment for some types of cancer. There is information about


What ultraviolet light treatment is

Treating skin conditions using ultraviolet light is called phototherapy or photochemotherapy. Ultraviolet light is a natural part of sunlight. It reduces inflammation of the skin. It can help to heal the skin and treat some skin conditions.


Psoralen ultraviolet light treatment (PUVA)

To have PUVA, you have a drug called psoralen to make your skin sensitive to light. You then have ultraviolet light shone on to the skin.

Phototherapy (PUVA) may be used to treat types of lymphoma that affect the skin, such as cutaneous T cell lymphoma (CTCL). It is also used for other skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, vitiligo and graft versus host disease.  


How you have PUVA

A nurse or doctor checks your skin before each treatment. First you have the psoralen as a tablet that you swallow with food or milk. You then wait for 1 or 2 hours for the psoralen to be absorbed. It is helpful to take something to read, play or listen to, to pass the time.

Your doctor then shines an ultraviolet light on to the treatment area. Or you may stand in a specially designed cubicle with light tubes that give out ultraviolet light. The light treats the sensitised skin cells.

You must wear protective goggles in the cubicle to protect your eyes from the ultraviolet light. Your nurse will give you the goggles and male genitalia will be covered. If your face is unaffected a visor may be used. You may have some tingling or heat in your skin. This is normal and not harmful.

Do not apply creams or perfumes before having PUVA, unless specifically recommended by your doctor. Tell your doctor about any medicines or herbal remedies or vitamins you are taking. 


PUVA for T Cell lymphoma of the skin

If you have PUVA for lymphoma of the skin, you may have treatment 2 to 3 times a week for about 4 months (20-30 treatments). After this time it is hoped your skin will be clear or almost clear. You may require future treatments if your skin worsens. Some people may have repeat treatment courses, usually after a year or so.

We have detailed information about lymphoma of the skin (cutaneous T cell lymphoma) and its treatment.


Side effects of PUVA treatment

As with all treatments, PUVA has some side effects. Psoralen is a type of drug called a photosensitiser. This means that it makes your skin and eyes very sensitive to light. The doctors and nurses at the hospital will give you guidelines to follow after you have treatment. It is important that you follow these to prevent serious side effects.

Eye care 

Eye protection is very important. You must wear UV400 standard eye protection sunglasses for 24 hours from the time of taking your psoralen tablets. You can get the sunglasses from chemists. If you don’t wear eye protection, you may have permanent eye damage, such as cataracts. Because you have been sensitised to light, eye damage can be caused by sunlight, daylight, neon light and even light through a window. So you need to wear sunglasses indoors too.

Skin care

Psoralen makes the skin more sensitive to light. So you will burn more easily than usual in the sun, especially on the day you have treatment. It is very important to protect yourself from the sun.

  • Don’t expose your skin or lips to sunlight or sun lamps for 24 hours after taking the psoralen tablets. Wear SPF lip balm and sunscreen
  • In sunny conditions use a sun block or high SPF sunscreen (SPF 30 and 4-5 star UVA protection) on all areas of skin exposed to light
  • Avoid sitting near windows because UVA can pass through glass
  • On treatment days make sure that all skin is covered by wearing long sleeved clothing, gloves, and enclosed shoes. You also need a wide brimmed hat to protect your face and head

Feeling sick

Psoralen may make you feel sick for a few hours after you take it. You may feel less sick if you eat little and often during that time.


You may have itchy skin for a few days after PUVA treatment. Using non perfumed moisturisers after the treatment can help. Check with your treatment team before using any creams or lotions. Some products can make the skin more sensitive.

If you are pregnant

Doctors think that psoralen could cause birth defects, so you must not have PUVA treatment if you are pregnant. And you should use reliable contraception throughout your course of treatment if there is any chance you could become pregnant. Talk to your doctor or nurse about contraception before starting treatment.


Long term side effects

The long term side effects of PUVA include ageing of the skin, skin darkening, and an increased risk of other types of skin cancer. The skin cancer risk is higher in fair skin and after multiple treatment courses. Your doctors will discuss the side effects of the treatment with you. You will need to look at both the risks and the benefits before having the treatment.


More information about light treatments

On this website we have pages about different treatments that use light. These include

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Updated: 3 September 2015