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Depression Health Center

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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) -- Diagnosis and Treatment

How Do I Know If I Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If you have symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), make an appointment to be evaluated by a psychiatrist experienced in treating SAD. No lab test exists for SAD, so the diagnosis is made based on your health history and symptoms. Illnesses with similar symptoms such as underactive thyroid function, hypoglycemia, chronic viral infections, and chronic fatigue syndrome, should be ruled out before a SAD diagnosis is confirmed. In children, abuse and separation anxiety should be considered, and in adolescents, substance abuse and anxiety disorders must be ruled out.

Doctors can diagnose SAD based on standards developed by the American Psychiatric Association.

What Are the Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The most effective treatment for SAD is light therapy, sometimes combined with antidepressant drugs, psychotherapy (talk therapy), or both.

Light therapy, sometimes called phototherapy, can be used in different ways and may employ different types of light boxes, light visors, and lamps. All are designed to bring in extra light to the eyes. Check to be sure a light box filters out harmful ultraviolet light.

In the most common form of light therapy, you sit before a light box containing a specialized fluorescent light covered with a plastic screen to block ultraviolet light for periods varying from 15 minutes to 1 1/2 hours a day. You place the box on a table or desk where you can do paperwork, read, or make phone calls. You do not need to look directly into the light.

Other light sources include larger boxes that stand on the floor, visors with lights attached, and dawn simulators -- lights programmed to turn on by your bed on winter mornings before dawn.

Light boxes can be purchased for several hundred dollars at special stores or on line. Experts warn against constructing your own light box because of possible damage from ultraviolet light.

Light therapy is safe and generally well tolerated. Minor side effects of light therapy include eye strain, headache, irritability, fatigue, and insomnia.

Since SAD is a form of depression, many different types of antidepressants have been used. The antidepressant Wellbutrin is the only drug approved by the FDA for the treatment of SAD. Other antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil and Prozac, are also often used in the treatment of SAD, either alone or in conjunction with light therapy.

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