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Argon Lasers: Avoid Exposure

By Our Newsgroup Members

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In the beginning, the 1980s, there was the argon laser for treatment of port wine stains. This treatment method produced mixed results with adults. In general, this method was not used on children due to the high risk of scarring. Thankfully, argon lasers have since been replaced by technologies like Pulse Dye Lasers (PDL) and Intense Pulse Light (IPL).

Stephanie Cale remembers her argon laser treatments as follows:

I had two treatments with argon, one at age 15 and the second at age 17. In the mid 1980s when I had them, argon was it - this was so early, there wasn't any other laser to choose from. The equipment was pretty basic, in that there was just the laser, no cooling device or anything like that. EMLA hadn't come along, so a topical skin anesthetic wasn't available either. What I had to do was endure a series of lidocaine shots to the area, which were pretty bad in and of themselves. Having a needle stuck into my facial skin hurt terribly, the lidocaine burned until it took effect, and the shots left needle bruises. After all that, the lidocaine didn't really numb the area that well either. Then I got to hold an ice pack on my face for 30-40 minutes to cool down the tissue. After that came the laser. I remember it was blue-green in color (as I could still see it through goggles, with my eyes shut) and so strong I could feel my skin popping as it cauterized, and smell the burnt hair and skin. On the first time I was treated in a striping pattern, like cornrows, and then on the second treatment the striping pattern would be repeated, this time lasering the untreated rows. When the treatment was finished I got a bacitracin coating, another ice pack and was sent home to heal.

Stephanie also remembers the post-treatment experience and generally unsatisfactory results:

Usually within the first day or two there would be a scabbing and crusting all over the treated area and a toe-curling painful burning sensation as the lidocaine wore off. The pain lasted for days, as did the scabbing which itched unbelievably as the skin underneath healed. I had to sleep in bandages so I wouldn't scratch at my face as I slept during the night. After a couple of weeks the scabs would eventually come off, and the skin underneath would be raw new pink skin that stung whenever light struck it. In that new pink skin, it was clear there was scarring and hypopigmentation, and left-over PWS. The PWS gradually faded a bit (maybe 30% each treatment) over the next several weeks to months, but the scarring and hypopigmentation were pretty obvious right off. The scarring was in the shape of the rows and the hypopigmentation was both in the scarred areas and the PWS areas. Both the scarring and hypopigmentation remain to this day. The PWS was definitely made lighter, but the price paid wasn't worth it. The scarring and white areas are just as hard to cover as the PWS.

Charlie (aka Stephanie's husband) refers to argon lasers as, "the Voldemort of past treatments!" He missed out on argon laser treatments. Certainly, Stephanie had enough experience for both them.

Lindsey Shanahan remembers this experience, which never went past the test stage:

I was referred to Dr Roberts by my doctor when I was a teenager to see if I wanted to try laser treatment for my birthmark. This particular laser was called the "Argon" laser and it was only in a hospital in Salisbury. So after consultation with Dr Roberts, he made an appointment for me to have a trial run. My parents and I went all the way from Wales to Salisbury to try the argon laser. However, it was not successful. It was done on my chin, only a small square but it was terribly painful and left me with a bump in my chin for quite a while. This laser is suitable for other people, but it wasn't for me.

Michael Steffano was a true pioneer with argon lasers:

In the mid-70s I had my first test spots done by Dr. Leon Goldman (widely credited as one of the pioneers of laser treatment for dermatological conditions). At that time lasers were big bulky machines (they didn't have the nifty fiber optics yet) so I was put on a gurney and wheeled under first a ruby laser and then an argon laser. I remember intense bursts of colored light. It literally felt like I had been smacked with each pulse. My father, who had brought me to the hospital, said after each pulse wisps of smoke would drift up off my face. A lot of pain and no gain... fortunately I did not have any scarring to speak of.

Sher Crummy tells this story on her personal web page:

At 15, I had my first laser treatment...the dreaded Argon laser. It was one the worst experiences of my life. It was extermely painful and took the whole summer to heal...I didn't leave the farm. I was left with more scarring. I didn't go back.

Stephanie has this final comment about argon lasers:

The technologies now are so much better and I'm grateful that people don't have to go through the argon experience anymore. It is so much easier now, so less painful, and safer. I've had treatments with other lasers since, and the difference is like night and day between the argon and the newer lasers. The new lasers don't destroy your skin the way the argon did and don't scar like it did. Whew!!
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