Phototherapy for atopic eczema

Annelie H. Musters (Lead / Corresponding author), Soudeh Mashayekhi, Carsten Flohr, Aaron M. Drucker, Louise Gerbens, John Ferguson, Sally Ibbotson, Robert S. Dawe, Floor Garritsen, Marijke Brouwer, Jacqueline Limpens, Stephanie J. Lax, Jane Harvey, Phyllis I. Spuls

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Background: Atopic eczema (AE), also known as atopic dermatitis, is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that causes significant burden. Phototherapy is sometimes used to treat AE when topical treatments, such as corticosteroids, are insufficient or poorly tolerated.

Objectives: To assess the effects of phototherapy for treating AE.

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Skin Specialised Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, and to January 2021.

Selection criteria: We included randomised controlled trials in adults or children with any subtype or severity of clinically diagnosed AE. Eligible comparisons were any type of phototherapy versus other forms of phototherapy or any other treatment, including placebo or no treatment.

Data collection and analysis: We used standard Cochrane methodology. For key findings, we used RoB 2.0 to assess bias, and GRADE to assess certainty of the evidence. Primary outcomes were physician‐assessed signs and patient‐reported symptoms. Secondary outcomes were Investigator Global Assessment (IGA), health‐related quality of life (HRQoL), safety (measured as withdrawals due to adverse events), and long‐term control.

Main results: We included 32 trials with 1219 randomised participants, aged 5 to 83 years (mean: 28 years), with an equal number of males and females. Participants were recruited mainly from secondary care dermatology clinics, and study duration was, on average, 13 weeks (range: 10 days to one year). We assessed risk of bias for all key outcomes as having some concerns or high risk, due to missing data, inappropriate analysis, or insufficient information to assess selective reporting.

Assessed interventions included: narrowband ultraviolet B (NB‐UVB; 13 trials), ultraviolet A1 (UVA1; 6 trials), broadband ultraviolet B (BB‐UVB; 5 trials), ultraviolet AB (UVAB; 2 trials), psoralen plus ultraviolet A (PUVA; 2 trials), ultraviolet A (UVA; 1 trial), unspecified ultraviolet B (UVB; 1 trial), full spectrum light (1 trial), Saalmann selective ultraviolet phototherapy (SUP) cabin (1 trial), saltwater bath plus UVB (balneophototherapy; 1 trial), and excimer laser (1 trial). Comparators included placebo, no treatment, another phototherapy, topical treatment, or alternative doses of the same treatment.

Results for key comparisons are summarised (for scales, lower scores are better):

NB‐UVB versus placebo/no treatment

There may be a larger reduction in physician‐assessed signs with NB‐UVB compared to placebo after 12 weeks of treatment (mean difference (MD) ‐9.4, 95% confidence interval (CI) ‐3.62 to ‐15.18; 1 trial, 41 participants; scale: 0 to 90). Two trials reported little difference between NB‐UVB and no treatment (37 participants, four to six weeks of treatment); another reported improved signs with NB‐UVB versus no treatment (11 participants, nine weeks of treatment).

NB‐UVB may increase the number of people reporting reduced itch after 12 weeks of treatment compared to placebo (risk ratio (RR) 1.72, 95% CI 1.10 to 2.69; 1 trial, 40 participants). Another trial reported very little difference in itch severity with NB‐UVB (25 participants, four weeks of treatment).

The number of participants with moderate to greater global improvement may be higher with NB‐UVB than placebo after 12 weeks of treatment (RR 2.81, 95% CI 1.10 to 7.17; 1 trial, 41 participants).

NB‐UVB may not affect rates of withdrawal due to adverse events. No withdrawals were reported in one trial of NB‐UVB versus placebo (18 participants, nine weeks of treatment). In two trials of NB‐UVB versus no treatment, each reported one withdrawal per group (71 participants, 8 to 12 weeks of treatment).

We judged that all reported outcomes were supported with low‐certainty evidence, due to risk of bias and imprecision. No trials reported HRQoL.

NB‐UVB versus UVA1

We judged the evidence for NB‐UVB compared to UVA1 to be very low certainty for all outcomes, due to risk of bias and imprecision. There was no evidence of a difference in physician‐assessed signs after six weeks (MD ‐2.00, 95% CI ‐8.41 to 4.41; 1 trial, 46 participants; scale: 0 to 108), or patient‐reported itch after six weeks (MD 0.3, 95% CI ‐1.07 to 1.67; 1 trial, 46 participants; scale: 0 to 10). Two split‐body trials (20 participants, 40 sides) also measured these outcomes, using different scales at seven to eight weeks; they reported lower scores with NB‐UVB. One trial reported HRQoL at six weeks (MD 2.9, 95% CI ‐9.57 to 15.37; 1 trial, 46 participants; scale: 30 to 150). One split‐body trial reported no withdrawals due to adverse events over 12 weeks (13 participants). No trials reported IGA.

NB‐UVB versus PUVA

We judged the evidence for NB‐UVB compared to PUVA (8‐methoxypsoralen in bath plus UVA) to be very low certainty for all reported outcomes, due to risk of bias and imprecision. There was no evidence of a difference in physician‐assessed signs after six weeks (64.1% reduction with NB‐UVB versus 65.7% reduction with PUVA; 1 trial, 10 participants, 20 sides). There was no evidence of a difference in marked improvement or complete remission after six weeks (odds ratio (OR) 1.00, 95% CI 0.13 to 7.89; 1 trial, 9/10 participants with both treatments). One split‐body trial reported no withdrawals due to adverse events in 10 participants over six weeks. The trials did not report patient‐reported symptoms or HRQoL.

VA1 versus PUVA

There was very low‐certainty evidence, due to serious risk of bias and imprecision, that PUVA (oral 5‐methoxypsoralen plus UVA) reduced physician‐assessed signs more than UVA1 after three weeks (MD 11.3, 95% CI ‐0.21 to 22.81; 1 trial, 40 participants; scale: 0 to 103). The trial did not report patient‐reported symptoms, IGA, HRQoL, or withdrawals due to adverse events.
There were no eligible trials for the key comparisons of UVA1 or PUVA compared with no treatment.

Adverse events

Reported adverse events included low rates of phototoxic reaction, severe irritation, UV burn, bacterial superinfection, disease exacerbation, and eczema herpeticum.

Authors' conclusions: Compared to placebo or no treatment, NB‐UVB may improve physician‐rated signs, patient‐reported symptoms, and IGA after 12 weeks, without a difference in withdrawal due to adverse events. Evidence for UVA1 compared to NB‐UVB or PUVA, and NB‐UVB compared to PUVA was very low certainty. More information is needed on the safety and effectiveness of all aspects of phototherapy for treating AE.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD013870
Number of pages211
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Issue number2
Early online date13 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 28 Oct 2021


  • Dermatitis, Atopic
  • Eczema
  • Phototherapy
  • Quality of Life
  • Ultraviolet Therapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)


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