Sun Poisoning: What Are the Symptoms?

by Sue Chung Patient Expert

Reader: I got a bad sun burn and now it's painful. How can I tell if it's just a regular sunburn or if it's sun poisoning?

Sunburns are never good news. Not only do they leave you red-faced and stinging, but they often leave lasting damage. Sun poisoning may seem much more serious, but it's essentially the same thing. In medical terms, sun poisoning and sunburn are both referred to as photodermatitis, your skin's allergic reaction to overexposure to the sun.

In the case of sun poisoning, however, the reaction is a bit more severe and the symptoms may become seriously uncomfortable. A typical sunburn involves itching, redness, and peeling. Severe sunburns may also be accompanied by small blisters that may lead to infection. Symptoms of sun poisoning also tend to include nausea, fever, headache, and dizziness and may also be accompanied by fluid loss and electrolyte imbalance.

If your symptoms are limited to mild discomfort, treat your skin the way you would treat any sunburn. Stay hydrated, apply ice or cold compresses to reduce swelling or itching, and take aspirin. Apply aloe if it helps and keep out of the sun. Try taking beta-carotene supplements as they've been shown to ease inflammation. Avoid using oils or anything that contains potential irritants such as fragrances and exfoliants.

On the other hand, if the burn is more painful or you exhibit any of the systemic symptoms listed above, step up your efforts to cool down and hydrate. Drink plenty of fluids and take a bath in cool (not cold) water. Pat skin dry-don't rub-and stay in a cool environment until your symptoms ease.

At any point, if you suffer from extreme pain or vomiting or if your fever grows too hot (over 104 degrees Fahrenheit), head to an emergency room. In more serious cases, a doctor can prescribe an oral steroid to reduce inflammation or administer IV fluids to restore hydration.

Another possible reason for the reaction is polymorphous light eruption (PLE), a UV-sensitive rash that results in blisters or hives. Although PLE causes similar symptoms to sun poisoning, PLE can occur without sunburn. This condition usually affects people who live in the northern hemisphere and is most common in spring or early summer. Skin sensitivity caused by PLE usually fades by itself within 10 days. In order to ease the symptoms, you can treat the blisters the same way you would treat a sunburn.

Treating these uncomfortable symptoms is just one step. It's easier to prevent any kind of sun-related reaction by taking care to cover up, wear liberal amounts of sunscreen, and avoid medications that have been shown to cause an increase in photosensitivity. Taking oral contraceptives, tetracycline antibiotics, certain anti-depressants and acne medications, and St. John's Wort can all increase the occurrence of photosensitivity. In addition, some pre-existing medical conditions such as lupus or vitiligo can increase the risk of sun sensitivity. If any of these risk factors apply to you, make sure you practice safe sun habits. Avoid tanning beds, stay in the shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

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Sue Chung
Meet Our Writer
Sue Chung

Sue wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Healthy Skin.