What You Need to Know about Sun Poisoning

Community Member

This coming weekend is the Memorial Day weekend for those of us who live in the states. This is a weekend noted for outdoor fun. Some of you may go to a lake, beach, or swimming pool and some of you may lay out and tan without using sunscreen. (But I sincerely hope that you don't) In a previous post I talked about the dangers of getting that base tan.   But some of you will go beyond tanning and get burned. And some of you will go beyond burning and develop sun poisoning.

We have been getting a lot of questions about sun poisoning recently on My Skin Care Connection and so I thought I would address this topic now as a preventive measure before you guys go out and sizzle your skin like a bucket of fried chicken.

If you have never had sun poisoning let me tell you about my personal experience. I am from the North and I have fair skin. I freckle and burn easily and have blue-green eyes. Based on these skin cancer risk factors I should be extremely careful of sun exposure. But I am also in my forties and when I was a teen-ager, we didn't know what we know now about protecting our skin. We laid out in the sun. We used things like baby oil and greased ourselves up like bacon in a frying pan. I took my first trip to Miami Beach Florida when I was about sixteen. I had no idea how much sun I was getting and basically laid in the sun for hours with absolutely no sun protection. By that evening I looked like a lobster. My skin was hot to the touch and painful. But by the next evening I was worse off than ever. I felt sick to my stomach, my skin hurt with the slightest touch, I was stiff all over, I developed a fever, and had chills. I was sick as a dog for about 24 hours. And then I had to deal with blistering, peeling, and itching skin for over a week. It was a lesson that I have never forgotten about how painful unprotected sun exposure can be.

Sun poisoning is basically the same as sunburn but the symptoms are more severe. You may not develop symptoms of sunburn or sun poisoning for 24 hours or longer. The pain of sunburn may be worst between six and 48 hours after sun exposure.

The symptoms of sun poisoning may include:

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Nausea

  • Rash or patches of purple discoloration

  • Dizziness

  • Swelling and blistering of the skin

  • Dehydration

When to Contact Your Doctor:

  • Call your doctor if you are having signs of sun poisoning as listed above.
  • If you feel faint or dizzy.
  • If you are showing signs of dehydration such as extreme thirst but little to no urine output and sunken eyes.
  • If your eyes hurt and especially if exposed to light.
  • If you are experiencing hyperventilation or a rapid heartbeat.
  • If your skin is pale and clammy.

The best way to not get sunburns or sun poisoning is to protect your skin from the sun and from tanning beds. It is very possible to also have severe skin reactions from being exposed to tanning beds. Many of the ways to prevent skin cancer are also ways to prevent sunburns. Please read, "Ten Ways to Prevent Skin Cancer" for sun protection strategies. One major reason why you don't want to burn in the sun, aside from the pain and illness it can cause, is that getting a blistering sunburn can be a precursor for developing melanoma. The New York Times reports that: "One blistering sunburn doubles the likelihood of developing malignant melanoma."

Treatment for Sun Poisoning:

As stated previously, if you are experiencing symptoms such as a fever and dehydration or the other symptoms listed above, it is wise to seek the advice of your doctor or even go to the emergency room. Otherwise you are going to treat your skin as you would for any sunburn.

Here is our sunburn first aid guide to help you.

Other Tips:

  • Rest and stay well hydrated.

  • Apply cool compresses to the burn. Dip a washcloth in ice water and then lay the cloth over the burn. You can also try a cool bath.

  • You can chill your moisturizer and place it on your skin if it is not blistering.

  • You can chill some aloe vera gel and place it on your burned skin for some soothing relief. - Don't disturb any blisters which may develop. You may place dry gauze bandages over your burn to protect your skin.

  • You can take over the counter pain medication for the pain such as Ibuprofen.

For more information about sun poisoning please read the following:

  • The National Institutes of Health: Sunburn