Phototherapy is commonly used in the treatment of hyperbilirubinemia in newborns. No serious side effects related to phototherapy have been observed, but concerns regarding its potential to damage DNA have been expressed, based on animal or cell-culture studies. The aim of this study was to investigate, in neonates with hyperbilirubinemia, the possible relation between phototherapy and DNA damage. The study included 33 full-term newborns with non-physiological jaundice and 14 healthy newborns with physiological jaundice as controls. Phototherapy was performed with an array of six fluorescent lamps producing radiation with wavelengths of 480-520 nm at 12 microW/cm(2)/nm. DNA damage in lymphocytes was determined by use of the alkaline comet assay. The DNA damage increased significantly with the duration of phototherapy, as shown by measurements at 24, 48, and 72 h (P<0.001). These findings indicate that phototherapy, widely used in neonatology units, increases DNA damage in newborns. It remains to be seen whether the genotoxic effect observed in the present study can cause any long-term health effect in phototherapy-treated infants in later life.