Pulsed dye laser treatment of port-wine stains: a review of patients treated in Western Australia

Ernest Tan and Carl Vinciullo
Med J Aust 1996; 164 (6): 333.
Published online: 18 March 1996


Objective: To assess the effectiveness of the flashlamp-pumped pulsed dye laser in the treatment of port-wine stains.
Design: A retrospective review of medical records and patients.
Setting: Royal Perth Hospital (a tertiary referral hospital), August 1989 to December 1992.
Subjects: 186 consecutive patients with port-wine stains treated with a flashlamp-pumped pulsed dye laser.
Outcome measures: Degree of lesion fading; adverse reactions.
Results: Of 131 patients who completed treatment, 78% had better than 50% fading of the lesion and only 9% had less than 25% fading. An average 3.4 treatments were needed to achieve more than 50% fading. The response was better in children than in adults, although the difference was not significant. Anaesthesia was needed for 44% of patients. Pigmentary change (usually transient) occurred in 6.1% of patients and permanent and significant adverse effects in only 4.6%.
Conclusion: This study confirms the efficacy of the flashlamp-pumped pulsed dye laser in the treatment of port-wine stains in children and adults. Early treatment of port-wine stains should be encouraged to reduce the physical and psychological morbidity of disfiguring lesions.


Port-wine stains (now termed capillary malformations) are congenital vascular malformations characterised by ectatic vessels within the cutaneous superficial vascular plexus.1 They affect 0.3% of children at birth, with an equal sex distribution.2 Most port-wine stains are found on the head and neck, with 85% occurring in a unilateral, dermatomal distribution.3 Their natural history is to progress from a pink, macular lesion at birth to a dark red (or even purple), nodular, proportionately larger lesion in adulthood.1,4

Cosmetic disfigurement can cause considerable psychological morbidity, and be socially disadvantageous.5,6 Hypertrophic, nodular lesions may bleed, either spontaneously or after trauma, encroach on essential facial structures or even develop into pyogenic granulomas.7 All port-wine stains should be treated, preferably early in life, to prevent or reduce the potential physical and psychological complications.

Before the development of laser technology, treatment for port-wine stains was often unsatisfactory.8 Earlier lasers, including ruby, carbon dioxide and argon lasers, improved the lesions in most patients, but, as they were non-selective in their effects on tissue, the frequency of side effects, such as scarring and pigmentary changes, was unacceptably high.9 The flashlamp-pumped pulsed dye laser (PDL) was the first laser to be based on selective photothermolysis;10 it produces vascular- specific damage without affecting surrounding dermal structures or the epidermis.11-13 Studies have confirmed its effectiveness in the treatment of port-wine stains in adults, children and infants, with an extraordinarily low incidence of side effects.14-19 The PDL is now regarded as the first-line treatment for port-wine stains whenever possible.8,9,20-22

In Australia, the PDL has been in use since the late 1980s for the treatment of cutaneous vascular lesions, especially port-wine stains. However, no Australian study of its effects has been published. Therefore, we undertook a retrospective clinical review of all patients with port-wine stains treated with PDL at Royal Perth Hospital between August 1989 and December 1992.


The study was a retrospective review of patient medical records. If response to treatment was not recorded, attempts were made to review the patient between January and December 1993.


All patients (adult and paediatric) with a port-wine stain treated with PDL at Royal Perth Hospital between August 1989 and December 1992 were eligible. Patients attended outpatient clinics, where the site and size of the port-wine stain and demographic data were recorded and the treatment procedure and its risks and benefits were explained. Patients were photographed before treatment by a professional photographer in a studio dedicated to medical photography, with efforts to use the same magnification, lighting and exposure.

Laser and technique

A flashlamp-pumped pulsed dye laser (Candela SPTL-1, Candela Corp, Wayland, Mass, United States) was used. It emitted yellow light at a wavelength of 585 nm, with a pulse duration of 450 µs and a 3 s pause between pulses. The laser beam was transmitted down a 1 mm fibre by a planoconvex lens and focused as a 5 mm spot beam. Energy densities were measured by an energy meter (Ophir, Jerusalem, Israel), calibrated to 10% accuracy. Both the physicians and the patients eyes were protected from laser light during treatment.

Some patients had a small initial test patch treated, depending on patient anxiety and time of presentation (before 1991, most had a patch test). Otherwise, the entire lesion was treated at once, unless it involved a large surface area (> 100 cm2). Treatments were repeated at intervals of 23 months.

The energy density used varied with the age of the patient and colour, nodularity and location of the lesion and was adjusted according to the degree of purpura produced and the patients response to the previous treatment. Pulses were overlapped by a maximum of 10% across the affected area.

The anaesthetic varied according to the site and area to be treated and the level of patient cooperation. EMLA cream (eutectic mixture of 2.5% lignocaine and 2.5% prilocaine cream, Astra Pharmaceuticals, North Ryde, NSW) was used for topical anaesthesia, applied under occlusion for 60120 minutes before treatment. Local anaesthesia involved an injection of 1% lignocaine, either locally or as a regional nerve block. General anaesthesia was given to children who had extensive lesions or were uncooperative with topical or local anaesthesia.

The treated area developed purpura within a few minutes, usually persisting for 710 days. No immediate postoperative care was necessary, except for an occasional ice pack to reduce oedema in those with large treatment areas. Postoperative instructions were to protect the area from trauma, avoid excessive exposure to sunlight and use a topical antiseptic cream for any scaling or crusting.

Treatment evaluation

Each port-wine stain was evaluated, either before the next treatment or 34 months after the final treatment. Lesional lightening was assessed as the percentage reduction in colour compared with the pretreatment photo (fading < 25%, poor; 25% to 50%, fair; > 50% to 75%, good; and > 75%, excellent) (Figures 1-4). [Tan figure 1]Adverse effects, such as scarring and textural or pigmentary changes, were also noted. All patients were individually assessed by one or both investigators. The endpoint of treatment was assessed clinically.

Data analysis

Data were analysed with the Statistical Analysis Systems software package.23 The chi-squared statistic was used to assess the difference in response between age groups.


There were 186 patients treated by PDL: 131 completed treatment (55 either did not complete treatment or were having ongoing treatment). Patients were either Caucasian or Asian and aged 8 months to 66 years (mean, 25.6 years). There were 59 males (32%) and 127 females (68%).

[Tan figure 2]Most of the treated lesions were present from birth (97%). Acquired lesions appeared most commonly between the ages of six and 12. Most lesions were on the face and neck (87%), with the rest distributed unilaterally on the arms (4%), legs (5%), back (2%) and chest (2%).

The size of treated lesions ranged from 1 cm2 to 280 cm2 (mean, 42 cm2). All responded to energy fluences between 5 and 10 joules/cm2(mean, 6.7 joules/cm2). Sixty-two per cent of the patients had a patch test before treatment. Anaesthesia was used for 44% of patients (general anaesthesia by 20%, topical by 19% and local or regional block by 5%).

Responses of patients who completed treatment are shown in the Box. A good-to-excellent response was achieved in 78% and a poor response in only 9%. An average 3.4 treatments per lesion were required to achieve a good-to-excellent response.[Tan figure 3]

Adverse side effects occurred in 11% of patients who completed treatment; all had some fading of the lesion. The most common adverse effect was pigmentary change (6.1%), which was usually transient and resolved in 23 months. Only 4.6% had significant permanent adverse effects; two had scarring (in both the port-wine stain was on the face and neck region).

More children than adults had a good or excellent response, but the difference was not significant when compared with a 2 x 2 contingency table and chi-squared test (r = 0.60). Similarly, fewer children than adults had a poor response.[Tan figure 4]


Our results compare favourably with those of other studies. A good-to-excellent response (more than 50% fading) was obtained in 78% of our patients (including both adults and children, with lesions on sites including the trunk and lower limbs), with an average 3.4 treatments required. Others have found more than 50% fading in 73%-95% of patients after 2.4-2.8 treatments.14-17,24,25 Response to treatment varies between sites: the periorbital area, temple, lateral aspect of the cheek, neck and chin have been observed to be more responsive18,25 and the centrofacial area and lower leg to be less responsive.18,19 We found that a poor response was more common in adults than in children (although the difference was not significant), possibly because port-wine stains become progressively hypertrophied and nodular in adults.

We found a higher rate of adverse effects (11%) than in other studies. The most common (usually transient) adverse effect was pigmentary change (increase or decrease), possibly because of excessive sunlight exposure after treatment. This transient change may not have been recorded in other studies; when it was excluded from our figures, the rate of adverse reactions was reduced to less than 5%, which is comparable with that found in other studies. Scarring was seen in two of our patients, with lesions on the face and neck, where damage to dermal structures with fibrosis occurs when excessive energy fluence is used. A low energy fluence should be used initially when treating port-wine stains on the neck and anterior chest.

The PDL is the first laser specifically designed for cutaneous vascular malformations. It is based on the theory of selective photothermolysis, which predicts selective destruction of blood vessels without damage to the surrounding tissues.10 Laser light emitted by the PDL is absorbed by oxyhaemoglobin in the dilated vessels of the lesion, producing agglutination of erythrocytes, thrombus formation and eventual destruction of the vessels.11 They are replaced by non-dilated superficial dermal blood vessels with a normal appearance.12 A recent comparison of PDL and the copper vapour laser showed that PDL produced significantly better fading of port-wine stains.22

The characteristics and degree of pain associated with PDL treatment have been well described.26 Initially, there is a sharp stinging pain, very similar to the snap of a rubber band against the skin. Accompanying this is a second distinct heat sensation that can be at least as unpleasant as the initial sting. Pain rapidly subsides but seems to build up if successive pulses are used for a moderately sized lesion.

Our current practice is to give general anaesthesia to all children from four weeks of age, until they are able to co-operate with topical or local anaesthesia, usually at eight to 10 years. Young children undergoing multiple painful treatments with inadequate anaesthesia under restraint may develop phobic responses. Furthermore, a struggling child may compromise the clinicians ability to perform the procedure optimally.

In conclusion, this study supports the contention that all port-wine stains should be treated with PDL, as it has a high therapeutic index with a low incidence of adverse effects. Patients should preferably be treated in infancy or childhood, under general anaesthesia, to minimise the potential psychological morbidity of disfiguring lesions. In addition, the response to treatment seems better in children than in adults, although the difference was not significant, possibly because of the relatively small sample size. Laser treatment of port-wine stains should no longer be considered just cosmetic, but a medical necessity for a problem that can cause psychological and physical morbidity.


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Authors details

Department of Dermatology, Royal Perth Hospital, Perth, WA.
Ernest Tan, MB BS, Dermatology Registrar; Carl Vinciullo, FACD, Visiting Dermatologist.
No reprints will be available. Correspondence: Dr C Vinciullo, Department of Dermatology, Royal Perth Hospital, Wellington Street, WA 6000.

Received 21 May 2024, accepted 21 May 2024

  • Ernest Tan
  • Carl Vinciullo



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