Sun poisoning doesn’t really mean you’ve been poisoned. It is often the term used for a severe case of sunburn. This is a burn from ultraviolet (UV) radiation that inflames your skin. Sun poisoning can also refer to other reactions. Two examples are polymorphous light eruption and solar urticaria.
Signs and Symptoms of Sun Poisoning
Within just 15 minutes of being in the sun, you can become sunburned, but you might not know it right away. The redness and discomfort might show up a few hours later. You can become severely sunburned if you stay in the sun a long time and don’t wear protection. You are at greater risk if you have light skin and fair hair.
Severe sunburn or sun poisoning can cause symptoms such as:
- Skin redness and blistering
- Pain and tingling
- Fever and chills
Other Types of Sun Poisoning
Sun poisoning may also refer to two types of reactions to sunlight. The cause is unclear, although the immune system is believed to play a role. This may occur after exposure to certain drugs or chemicals or as part of a systemic disease. But sometimes the cause is unknown.
Polymorphous light eruption (PMLE). At least one in 10 Americans is affected by PMLE, a reaction that does not appear to be linked to drugs or diseases. More common in women than in men and beginning at any age, PMLE occurs in people who are susceptible and are exposed to intense sunlight that they are not used to. For example, people living in northern climates could experience this if taking a winter vacation in a tropical climate.
In some cases, this reaction gets better each year, but some people have reactions that become more extensive without treatment. How much sunlight individuals can tolerate varies from person to person.
Symptoms are a severe skin rash, usually appearing within 30 minutes to several hours of going out in the sun. The rash may be itchy and have these characteristics:
- Small bumps all over the body
- Dense clumps of bumps
- Hives, usually on the arms, lower legs, and chest
A hereditary form of PMLE occurs in Native Americans. It can last from spring until fall. Symptoms at first include redness, burning, and itching, which usually last two or three days, but can persist for weeks.
Other symptoms may begin within a few hours of sun exposure but go away within hours.
- Solar urticaria. Symptoms may develop within minutes of exposure to sun. If large areas of skin are involved, symptoms may include:
- Raised areas on the skin (wheals) or blisters
- Loss of consciousness
- Although the blisters usually go away within hours, you may experience the reaction off and on throughout the years.
Treating Sun Poisoning
For severe sunburn, these simple remedies usually do the trick:
- Get out of the sun.
- Take a cool (not cold) shower or bath or apply cool compresses.
- Drink extra fluids for a few days.
- Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve pain.
- Use aloe gel or another moisturizer.
- Completely cover sunburned areas when going outside.
Seek immediate medical care for these symptoms:
- A sunburn that forms blisters, covers a large area, or is very painful
- Facial swelling
- Fever and chills
- Upset stomach
- Headache, confusion, or faintness
- Signs of dehydration
Treatment for PMLE depends on its severity. Other than staying out of the sun and protecting yourself when you are, you may not need treatment. The rash can clear by itself within seven to 10 days. For solar urticaria, antihistamines are effective in some cases.
Other treatment or prevention for either type of reaction may include:
- Topical corticosteroids
- Sunscreen with both ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet A (UVA) protection
- Phototherapy with psoralen UV light (PUVA) to desensitize skin to UV light
- Low-dose antimalarials (for PMLE)
If you are on medications, check with your doctor to see if any might be making your skin more sensitive to sunlight. Here are examples of drugs that might do that:
- Acne medications
- Heart drugs
- Birth control pills
- Topical antibacterials, fragrances, or antifungals
Preventing Sun Poisoning
Don’t forget the basics of sun safety. Apply sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30 to all exposed areas of skin. Make sure it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Do this15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun and reapply about every two hours.
Limit exposure during the hottest hours of the day — between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. And remember that water, snow, and sand can intensify damaging rays of the sun. Finally, make sunglasses, a hat, and protective clothing standard sun gear.
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