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How to Tell if You Have Sun Poisoning

Alyssa Orcuilo20 Jul 2021

You can tell if you have sun poisoning by evaluating your symptoms and considering the severity of your sunburn. While sun poisoning is not actually mean you’ve been poisoned, it does mean you have a severe sunburn that likely inflamed your skin. 

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How to Tell if You Have Sun Poisoning

You can tell if you have sun poisoning by looking at the symptoms you are experiencing. Severe sunburn or sun poisoning can cause symptoms such as the following:

  • Skin redness and blistering
  • Pain and tingling
  • Swelling
  • Headache
  • Fever and chills
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Dehydration

The Cause of Sun Poisoning

You can become severely sunburned if you stay in the sun for a long time and don't wear protection. You are also more likely to sunburn if you have light skin and fair hair.

Certain medications and chemicals can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, making you more susceptible to sunburn and sun poisoning. If you have a sun allergy or an allergic reaction to sunlight and its UV rays (polymorphic light eruption), this is also known as sun poisoning. 

The following are risk factors for sun poisoning: 

  • Exposure to certain substances. Some skin allergy symptoms are triggered when your skin is exposed to a substance and then to sunlight. Common substances responsible for this type of reaction include fragrances, disinfectants, and even some chemicals used in sunscreens.
  • Taking certain medications. Several medications can make the skin sunburn more quickly, including tetracycline antibiotics, sulfa-based drugs, and pain relievers, such as ketoprofen.
  • Having another skin condition. Having dermatitis increases your risk of having a sun allergy.
  • Having blood relatives with a sun allergy. You're more likely to have a sun allergy if you have a sibling or parent with a sun allergy.

Different Types of Sun Poisoning

Sun poisoning is similar to severe sunburn, leading to patient confusion if symptoms go beyond those they may usually get from a day in the sun. Here are five different forms of the condition and their respective symptoms.

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Polymorphous Light Eruption (PMLE): This condition is fairly common and triggered by UVA and UVB rays.  PLME typically occurs only after the first few bouts of sun exposure for the year since people develop a tolerance to the sun as time progresses. For example, people might develop symptoms after a February trip to a sunny climate or after those first few sunny warm days in May.  Symptoms include a rash that is intensely itchy on forearms, tops of hands, thighs, sides of the face, and the v-neck area of the chest.

Photoallergic Reactions: Photoallergies occur when people have become sensitized or allergic to oral medications or topical products (including some ingredients in sunscreens). UVA light triggers these reactions more often than UVB. UVA rays are equally as strong in the winter as in the summer, so that these reactions may occur in the wintertime and summer.

Phototoxic Reactions: These reactions are fairly common and are similar to an acute sunburn. They occur due to tetracycline derivatives and sun exposure and can leave severe redness, swelling and blistering, especially on the tops of hands. Other phototoxic reactions include phytophotodermatitis, which is a response to topical agents on the skin. One common example of this is a reaction to furocoumarin, a chemical in many plants such as limes that can cause intense symptoms. Many patients develop this reaction after squeezing lime into a drink while vacationing in a tropical location.

Solar Urticaria: This rare condition is potentially the most severe of the varieties of sun poisoning. Solar urticaria can be triggered by any UV light, though UVA is the most common culprit. Hives occur after a short time in the sun and may lead to anaphylactic shock after full body exposure to sunlight.

How to Treat Sun Poisoning

According to Dr. Patel, “the diagnosis of sun poisoning is usually based on clinical observations and patient history. It is important to scan the skin for an eruption of papules or plaques on the sun-exposed skin. It is crucial to rule out other photosensitive skin conditions. If needed, a skin biopsy may be helpful to exclude some disorders. 

Sun poisoning is usually self-limited; it heals by itself after some time. Depending on the extent of the damage, sun poisoning symptoms can range from 2 days to weeks. It is important to consult your primary healthcare provider if you experience any of these symptoms. Prolonged sun exposure increases the risk of developing skin cancer.

You should also see a doctor if you‚re experiencing extreme symptoms such as headache, fainting, vomiting, or a very high fever”.

Sun Poisoning Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Below we answer some common questions when it comes to sun poisoning.

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How can I prevent sun poisoning?

Dr. Tejas B. Patel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist by the American Board of Dermatology specializing in medical and cosmetic dermatology, strongly suggests remaining cognizant of how much time you spend outside in the sunlight to prevent sun poisoning. It is recommended to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Sunscreen needs to be re-applied every 2 hours or after sweating/swimming. Protective clothing (such as long sleeves or long pants) and gear ( brim hat, sunglasses, etc.) can help protect areas of skin exposed to the sun as long as it protects against UVA and UVB rays.

What should I look for in a sunscreen?

These are the following factors you should consider when looking for sunscreen:

  • SPF: The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends a minimum of SPF 30; this is about 97% protection against the sun’s UVB rays.
  • Broad Spectrum: You’ll want to ensure you have both UVA and UVB protection, so look for the term “broad spectrum” in the label. 
  • Mineral vs. Chemical: Mineral (or physical) sunscreen works by using natural minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to reflect the sun’s rays from your skin. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens use chemical compounds like bemotrizinol, avobenzone, and biscotizole—all of which provide broad-spectrum protection.

When should I see a doctor for sun poisoning?

When left untreated, sun poisoning can lead to potentially life-threatening complications. Dehydration develops quickly, so it’s important to drink water or electrolytes after you’ve been in the sun.

Infection is also a possibility. This can develop if your skin is punctured from scratching at the burn or from popping blisters. To prevent infection, let your skin be. If you notice any oozing or red streaks, see your doctor right away. This could indicate a more severe infection that has possibly spread to your bloodstream, and you may need oral antibiotics.

Another complication of sun poisoning may not appear until long after the burning, blisters, and pain have gone away. People who experience severe sunburns are at a higher risk of developing premature wrinkles and skin spots later in life. Your risk for skin cancer may also increase.

Bottom Line

While sun poisoning can be scary and concerning, it's important to evaluate your symptoms and seek medical attention is necessary. You should always wear sun protection in order to prevent sun poisoning and evaluate your risk of developing it.