Patient Education

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Light Therapy

Treatment Overview

Light therapy is the main treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It's used for other conditions too. It is exposure to light that is brighter than indoor light but not as bright as direct sunlight.

The most common light therapy uses a special type of fluorescent light, called a light box. Light therapy is usually prescribed for 30 minutes to 2 hours a day. You place the light box at a certain distance from you, on a desk or table. Then you sit in front of it while you read, eat breakfast, or work at a computer. Light therapy is usually started in the fall and continued through spring.

How Well It Works

Light therapy is an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and other conditions. Many people feel better within 3 to 5 days of starting to use light in the morning. If you don't respond to treatment within the first week, you may improve in the second week.

If symptoms of depression do not improve, or if they become worse, it is important to follow up with your doctor or therapist.

Risks

Light therapy generally is safe, and you may use it together with other treatments.

The most common side effects of light therapy include:

  • Eyestrain or visual disturbances.
  • Headaches.
  • Agitation or feeling "wired."
  • Nausea.
  • Sweating.

You can relieve these side effects by decreasing the amount of time you spend under the light.

You may be tired during the first week because of changes in your sleep-wake patterns, but this will usually go away after about a week.

Do not use ultraviolet light, full-spectrum light, heat lamps, or tanning lamps for light therapy. People who have sensitive eyes or skin should not use light therapy without first talking with a doctor.

Credits

Current as of: June 16, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine