It feels so good to enjoy warm weather and get a little sunshine. But spending too much time in the sun can lead to a condition more serious than a sunburn. Sun poisoning describes a severe sunburn. It doesn't mean the skin has literally been poisoned; rather, experts explain sun poisoning as an allergy-like reaction from overexposure to UV light over a long period. The condition develops when UV radiation affects and inflames the skin, often resulting in a severe rash or blisters.
Everyone is at risk for sun poisoning but people on certain medications such as antibiotics or oral contraceptives must be particularly careful about sun exposure. Fair-skinned people with light hair and those with lupus or eczema have a higher risk of sun poisoning. Other factors include a family history of skin cancer, use of alpha hydroxy peels, living near the equator, using herbal supplements such as St. John Wort, and frequenting areas where the sun's rays are intensified due to reflections off the water or snow.
Spending too long in the sun can lead to sun poisoning, but how much is too much? This varies from person to person, based on complexion and the factors noted previously. It can take as little as 15 minutes to get a sunburn, and as few as a few hours to get sun poisoning, so it is important to pay attention to the skin and any signs that might indicate blistering or a rash. Often, symptoms do not show up until later, so sun protection measures are key.
One sign of sun poisoning is an uncomfortable skin rash, often red, blistered, bumpy, and itchy. The bumps can resemble hives. Swelling at the site of the rash is common, and the area may be painful or tingling. Hyperpigmentation -- darkening of the skin -- can also occur at the site of the rash.
Other symptoms of sun poisoning include fever, chills, headache, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, facial swelling, confusion, and lightheadedness. These symptoms are similar to the flu and other viral conditions, which can confuse the diagnosis. Anyone who suspects they may have developed sun poisoning should seek medical attention, especially if symptoms are severe.
PMLE or Polymorphous Light Eruption is another reaction people have to the sun; exposure to sunlight one is not used to causes this reaction. For example, someone who lives in the northern hemisphere could develop PMLE the first few times they experience sunlight in the southern hemisphere. Likewise, a person may develop this rash early in the spring or summer because their skin has been covered for the past few months. The reaction has a genetic component: people with Native American heritage can inherit PMLE.
Sun poisoning may also refer to another reaction to sunlight -- solar urticaria. While sun poisoning is a severe sunburn, solar urticaria is a severe allergic reaction to the sun; sunlight activates histamine release in the skin similar to exposure to certain plants or ointments. It's important to seek medical attention for either of these conditions.
According to the FDA, certain medications contain ingredients that cause sun sensitivity, increasing the risk of sunburn and thus sun poisoning. Antibiotics are at the top of the list, and not just because they start with A. Antihistamines and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can contribute to sun sensitivity as well. Not everyone will react the same, or react every time they are in the sun. However, people who are taking these types of medications should speak to a doctor or research the drugs to find out whether they could increase sun sensitivity.
The first step of treatment for a sun poisoning rash is avoiding any more sun exposure. Applying an ointment such as aloe vera gel or coconut oil will help to soothe the pain. Anti-itch cream can help protect the skin and relieve irritation, as can applying cold compresses.
Other treatments for sun poisoning include NSAIDs for pain and swelling and keeping hydrated. Bathe in cool water (not cold) and avoid any ointments or lotions that could sting or react negatively with the burn. Covering up when going outside for the next while can help prevent repeated and potentially dangerous sun exposure.
Use sunscreen with a broad-spectrum SPF of at least 30 will protect against both UVA and UVB rays. It's important to remember sunscreens need to be reapplied about every two hours to remain effective. Avoid peak hours in the summer -- between 10 am and 4 pm. Wear protective clothing such as long sleeves, hats, and sunglasses when possible, and prevent exposing infants and young children to direct sunlight.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.