Sun poisoning is an extreme case of sunburn — a burn that occurs when UV radiation from the sun inflames your skin. It begins with symptoms similar to sunburn so it often goes unnoticed, leading to more severe symptoms and dangerous situations.
Sun poisoning is most common during the summer months and in sunny areas.
Those who have a lighter skin tone, specifically redheads, are most susceptible to sun poisoning. That is because their body has not had a chance to produce melanin — the pigment that absorbs UV light and darkens skin (tans) to form a protective layer.
Sun Poisoning Symptoms
It can take fewer than 15 minutes to get a sunburn. Any prolonged time outside could result in severe sunburn, or sun poisoning. The short-term negative effects of sun poisoning show themselves for the next four to seven days, with more severe long-term effects extending beyond the first week.
The main symptom of sunburn is a burning “rash” where the skin reddens, dries up, and peels off. More severe symptoms of sun poisoning include:
- Large blisters.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Rapid pulse and breathing.
Sun poisoning symptoms can last anywhere from two to three days, or they may persist for weeks. If you experience any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. If not treated early and properly, sun poisoning can increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
Sun Poisoning Rash
Sun poisoning rash, also known as sun allergy or sun rash, can result from sun poisoning or too much exposure to the sun. Sun rash is a very itchy, widespread red rash. Small bumps, resembling hives, also can develop.
Blisters can also be a sign of sun poisoning. Typically, blisters are small, white bumps filled with fluid, with swollen red skin surrounding the area. These blisters can be extremely painful and itchy.
How to Prevent Sun Poisoning
Sun poisoning and sunburn can be prevented by following these steps:
- Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming.
- Avoid the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- Wear sunglasses with UV protection and protective clothing, such as hats.
Increased Risk of Sun Poisoning
A pre-existing condition can be the cause of sun poisoning. Conditions such as lupus and eczema can cause sun sensitivity, increasing the likelihood of sun poisoning occurring.
Polymorphous light eruption (PMLE)
A special type of sun poisoning is polymorphous light eruption (PMLE), which is a skin reaction to the sun for people who aren’t used to intense sunlight. This mostly affects fair-skinned individuals who live in northern climates.
Medications that cause sun sensitivity
Some of the most common medications known for causing sun sensitivity are:
- Antibiotics: doxycycline, tetracycline, and ofloxacin.
- Acne medications: retinoids.
- Antidepressants: doxepin and tricyclic.
- Antifungal treatments: griseofulvin.
- Antihistamines: promethazine and diphenydramine.
Treatment for Sun Poisoning: How You Can Care for Sun Poisoning
If you have mild sunburn or sun poisoning, there are a few home remedies that will lessen the pain:
- Hydrate and take ibuprofen to manage the pain.
- Apply cold compresses made of equal parts milk and water, or infused with Burow’s solution to help soothe the skin, and aloe vera gel can serve as an alternative.
- Use cool (not cold) water when bathing and avoid scented items like lotions, bath salts, oils, and perfumes because they may react negatively with the burnt skin.
- Avoid the sun until you’re well, and take precautionary measures to avoid a similar situation!
Treating sun poisoning rash is very similar:
- Apply a cold compress using diluted water, apple cider vinegar, milk, or baking soda.
- Be sure to leave the cold compress on for 30-60 minutes and repeat as needed.
- Apply a natural soothing agent such as aloe vera or coconut oil.
- Use anti-itch cream to protect your skin. If itching worsens, your doctor may need to prescribe an antibiotic.
- Take pain relievers if necessary or if the pain persists.
If you are experiencing sun poisoning, sunburn, or a sun rash, it is best to avoid the sun.
If you experience severe sun poisoning symptoms, such as fever and chills; upset stomach; headache, confusion, or faintness; or dehydration, seek medical attention immediately.
UPMC Urgent Care treats sunburns and sun poisoning symptoms. We are open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, and you never need an appointment to see a medical provider. Visit the UPMC Urgent Care website to get more information and find a location near you.