Photosensitivity refers to various symptoms, diseases, and conditions (photodermatoses) caused or exacerbated by exposure to sunlight. It is classified into five categories: primary photodermatosis, exogenous photodermatosis, photo-exacerbated dermatoses, metabolic photodermatosis, and genetic photodermatosis.
Primary or autoimmune photodermatoses
Photo-exacerbated or photo-aggravated dermatoses
Metabolic photodermatoses (rare)
Genetic photodermatoses (very rare disorders due to genomic instability)
The etiology of a photodermatosis depends on its classification (see individual topic articles). Some are due to autoimmune reactions, drugs, connective tissue disease, and abnormal inherited biochemical pathways.
Photosensitivity may be observed in both males and females at all ages and in all ethnic groups. Different types of photosensitivity may be prevalent at different times of life. Genetic and environmental factors intervene in the occurrence of photosensitivity.
Photosensitivity is caused by an abnormal reaction to a component of the electromagnetic spectrum of sunlight and a chromophore (reactive compound) within the skin. Patients can be sensitive to one kind of sunlight, for example only to ultraviolet radiation, ultraviolet A or B (UVA, UVB), or visible light, or to a wider range of radiation. The most common photosensitivity is to UVA. Mainly, exposure to visible light triggers porphyria.
Each category and sub-category of photosensitivity has a unique reaction pattern seen on pathology. See the individual chapter for the unique histopathologic characteristics of each entity.
The clinical features depend on the specific photodermatosis.
Clues to photosensitivity include:
Medical practitioners diagnose photosensitivity by a history of a skin problem arising from exposure to sunlight. They determine the specific type by taking a careful history, examining the skin and performing specific tests. Photosensitivity is sometimes confirmed by photosets, which only is available in specialized centers.
Investigations may include:
Management of photosensitivity involves sun protection and treatment of the underlying disorder. Mainly, photosensitivity reactions are prevented by careful protection from sun exposure and avoidance of exposure to artificial sources of UVR. Use of websites and smartphone apps that indicate local ultraviolet levels are helpful to understand when protection is most essential. There is more ultraviolet radiation in the tropics compared to temperate areas, in the Southern hemisphere compared to the Northern, during summer compared to winter, at high altitude compared to sea level, and in the middle of the day compared to the extremes of the day.
SPF is sun protection factor, defined as the dose of solar radiation needed to induce just perceptible erythema (minimal erythema dose, MED) on skin treated with 2 mg/cm sunscreen divided by the MED on untreated skin. SPF primarily describes protection from UVB, as it reflects protection from the erythema action spectrum.
The primary photodermatosis polymorphic light eruption may be paradoxically effectively treated by graduated, and cautious, exposure to ultraviolet radiation.
The first step in considering a diagnosis within the broad scope of photosensitivity is to consider each category of photosensitivity and the specific entities within the given category; whether it is primary photosensitivity such as polymourphous light eruption, autoimmune photosensitivity such as lupus erythematosus, photo-exacerbated or aggravated such as dermatomyositis, genetic such as xeroderma pigmentosum, or metabolic such as porphyria cutanea tarda. Then using the history and physical exam, narrow down the differential. For example, a polymourphous light eruption(PMLE) may be distinguised from lupus erythematosus by the history, presentation, and clinical appearance of these lesions. For photoexacerbated diseases such as dermatomyositis, other clinical findings such as capillary abnormalities around the nail folds or gottron papules over the bony prominences usually help with distinction from other entities such as drug enduced photosensitivity. Once the general category has been suspected, a differential can be developed within that category and helps with the diagnosis. For the differential diagnosis of each entity, please see the specific chapter of that entity.
The prognosis of each entity is unique, please see the individual chapters for each condition.
The complications of each entity is unique, please see the individual chapters for each condition.
In general, treatment of photosensitivity regardless of the entity is going to center around managing symptoms and pursuing photoprotection.
Patients with photodermatoses also may need to:
The healthcare team, including nurses, pharmacists, and clinicians must work together to educate patients with photodermatoses as they need to be reminded to take vitamin D supplements and oral antioxidants, wear a clear plastic mask to protect the face, choose gray-tinted laminated glass for their automobile, and apply photoprotective UV films to windows at home, school work, and vehicles. The team should remind patients they need to have regular skin checks to locate and treat skin cancers early. [Level V]
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