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A three-dimensional theory of the frequency-domain thermal-wave field generated inside a turbid medium with optical and thermal properties of human tissue is presented. The optical source is treated as a three-dimensional harmonically modulated diffuse photon-density wave (DPDW) field in the diffusion approximation of the radiative transfer theory. Unlike earlier Green-function-based theoretical models, exact boundary conditions are used based on the requirement that there should be no diffuse photon intensity entering the turbid medium from the outside. Explicit analytical expressions for the DPDW field and for the dependent thermal-wave field are obtained in the spatial Hankel-transform domain. The formalism is further extended to the calculation of the infrared photothermal radiometric signal arising from the nonradiatively generated thermal-wave distribution in turbid media with instantaneous nonradiative de-excitation, as well as in media with non-zero fluorescence relaxation lifetimes. Numerical inversions have been performed and presented as examples of selected special cases of the theory. It is found that the present theory with exact DPDW-field boundary conditions is valid throughout the entire domain of the turbid medium, with the exception of the very-near-surface ballistic photon “skin layer” (7–50 μm). Photothermal radiometric signals were found to be more reliably predicted than DPDW signals within this layer, due to the depth-integration nature of this detection methodology. © 2003 American Institute of Physics.