Many laser therapies involve significant heating of tissue with pulses varying from picoseconds to minutes in duration. In some of the applications heating is a primary goal, while in others it is an undesirable side effect. In both cases, if a hyperthermia is involved, the knowledge about the threshold temperature leading to irreversible cellular damage is critically important. We study the dependence of the threshold temperature on duration of the heat exposure in the range of 0.3 ms to 5 seconds. Thin layer of cells cultured in a Petri dish was exposed to a pulsed CO2 laser radiation. Laser beam was focused onto sample providing Gaussian intensity distribution in the focal plane with a beam diameter (2w) 2-10 mm. Surface temperature in the central part of the focal spot (1mm in diameter) was measured by thermal infrared (IR) emission from the sample, recorded with a fast IR detector. For pulses shorter than 1 s the temperature profile across the focal spot was found to closely correspond to the radial distribution of the laser beam intensity, thus allowing for accurate determination of temperature at any given distance from the center of the spot. Immediate cellular damage was assessed using vital staining with the live/dead fluorescent assay. Threshold temperatures were found to vary from 65 °C at 5 s of heating to 160 °C at pulses of 0.3 ms in duration. The shorter end of this range was limited by vaporization, which occurs during the laser pulse and results in mechanical damage to cells. Dependence of the maximal temperature on pulse duration could be approximated by Arrhenius law with activation energy being about 1 eV.© (2005) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.