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At the ER, your doctor will check your vitals, as well as the severity of your sunburn.
Sun poisoning refers to a case of severe sunburn. It occurs after you’ve been exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun for an extended period of time.
Also known as polymorphic light eruption, sun poisoning can come in different forms based on your sensitivity to the sun. Unlike a mild sunburn, sun poisoning usually requires medical treatment to prevent complications.
With sun poisoning, you may first experience symptoms of a regular sunburn. Sunburn symptoms can appear within 6 to 12 hours of exposure to UV rays. It’s important to distinguish between the symptoms of a sun rash, sunburn, and sun poisoning.
A sun rash (sun allergy) develops from sun exposure, sun poisoning, or exposure to outdoor plants such as parsnip. It’s sometimes hereditary. The resulting symptoms of a sun allergy reaction look like a widespread red rash. It’s also extremely itchy. The rash can develop small bumps that look like hives.
Sun allergies occur regularly from sun exposure and may need regular treatment from a dermatologist. A sun rash that develops from sun poisoning is more of an isolated event that needs medical attention.
In cases of mild sunburn, you might experience redness, pain, and swelling. A sunburn eventually heals on its own, although applying aloe vera gel can help soothe your skin.
Sometimes a cold bath or over-the-counter pain relievers can relieve discomfort, too. Eventually, sunburn heals on its own without any significant complications.
Symptoms of sun poisoning
Sun poisoning, on the other hand, is significantly worse than a mild sunburn. In addition to the usual sunburn-like symptoms, you might experience:
- blistering or peeling skin
- severe redness and pain
- fever (and sometimes chills)
- nausea or vomiting
The term “sun poisoning” can be a bit misleading, as it presumes you are somehow poisoned because of sun exposure. Sun poisoning actually refers to a severe burn from UV-ray exposure. This can happen from being out in the sun too long, not wearing sunscreen, or perhaps forgetting to take extra precautions if you’re at an increased risk for sunburn.
You may also be at an increased risk of sun poisoning if you:
- have fair skin
- have relatives who’ve had skin cancer
- are taking antibiotics
- take oral contraceptives
- are using certain herbal supplements, such as St. John’s wort
- apply citrus oils to the skin prior to sun exposure
- live in a region that’s near the equator
- reside in high altitudes (such as mountainous regions)
- frequent the beach, as sunlight reflects more intensely off sand and water
- engage in regular snow activities during the winter — sun reflects off snow, too
- are using alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as chemical peels
If you think you have sun poisoning, you need to see a doctor right away. They can help provide treatment to prevent related complications, such as skin damage and severe dehydration.
In some cases, you might need to go to the emergency room, especially if you are dehydrated or have flu-like symptoms, such as fever or muscle aches.
At the ER, your doctor will check your vitals, as well as the severity of your sunburn.
Your doctor may treat sun poisoning with cool water or compresses. Applying lotion to your skin while it’s damp can help peeling skin retain the most moisture possible. Also, drinking fluids can help replenish moisture lost from extremely dry skin.
Sun poisoning may also be treated with:
- intravenous (IV) fluids for dehydration
- steroid creams for painful blistering sunburns
- oral steroids for pain and swelling
- prescription pain medications if OTC versions aren’t providing relief
- topical antibiotics to prevent infection
Sun poisoning, when treated promptly, will heal over time. In the most severe cases, people with sun poisoning may be transferred to the hospital’s burn unit.
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.
Sun poisoning is a severe complication of sunburn, and it can get worse if you don’t treat it right away.
A typical mild sunburn heals within a week. Sun poisoning, on the other hand, can take several weeks to completely go away — it all depends on the extent of the damage to your skin.
The best way to prevent sun poisoning is to minimize unnecessary UV exposure. First, you should wear sunscreen every day, regardless of whether it’s a warm, sunny day, or a cold cloudy day. Vanderbilt University Medical Center recommends a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF. Make sure the product you’re using guards against both UVA and UVB rays for the most protection. You’ll need to reapply your sunscreen if you sweat or go swimming — preferably every two hours in these instances.
You can also reduce excessive exposure by wearing hats and cool cotton clothing. Also, consider staying indoors when sun rays are at their highest: 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Last medically reviewed on October 24, 2017
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Sun poisoning doesn’t really mean you’ve been poisoned. It is often the term used for a severe case of sunburn. This is usually a burn from ultraviolet (UV) radiation that inflames your skin.
Symptoms of Sun Poisoning
Within just 15 minutes of being in the sun, you can be sunburned. But you might not know it right away. The redness and discomfort might not show up for a few hours.
You can become severely sunburned if you stay in the sun a long time and don’t wear protection. You are more likely to sunburn if you have light skin and fair hair.
Severe sunburn or sun poisoning can cause symptoms such as the following:
- Skin redness and blistering
- Pain and tingling
- Fever and chills
Treating Sun Poisoning
For severe sunburn, these simple remedies usually do the trick:
- Get out of the sun.
- Take a cool (not cold) shower or bath or apply cool compresses.
- Drink extra fluids for a few days.
- Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve pain.
- Use aloe gel or a moisturizer.
- Completely cover sunburned areas when going outside.
Seek immediate medical care for these symptoms:
- A sunburn that forms blisters, covers a large area, or is very painful
- Facial swelling
- Fever and chills
- Upset stomach
- Headache, confusion, or faintness
- Signs of dehydration
Preventing Sun Poisoning
Follow the basics of sun safety:
- Wear a sunscreen that has at least 8% zinc oxide and a SPF of at least 30 and says “broad-spectrum” on the label, which means that it protects against the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. Put it on all over about 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun. Reapply at least every 2 hours and after you’ve been sweating or in the water.
- Limit your sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and remember that water, snow, and sand can intensify the sun’s damaging rays.
- Wear sunglasses, a hat, and protective clothing.
Check on your medications. Ask your doctor if anything you take might make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. For example, some acne medications, antibiotics, antidepressants, diuretics, heart drugs, and birth control pills make skin more sensitive. So can some antibacterial medications and fragrances that go on your skin. In fact, there’s a host of products that can raise your sensitivity to sunlight.
Other Types of Sun Poisoning
Sun poisoning may also refer to two types of reactions to sunlight:
Polymorphous light eruption (PMLE). PMLE is a reaction that does not appear to be linked to drugs or diseases. It happens in people who are at risk and who are exposed to intense sunlight that they’re not used to. For example, people living in northern climates could experience this if taking a winter vacation in a tropical climate.
Symptoms are a severe skin rash, usually appearing several hours after going out in the sun. The rash may be itchy and include:
- Small bumps over the sun-exposed areas of the body
- Dense clumps of bumps
- Hives, usually on the arms, lower legs, and chest
An inherited form of PMLE occurs in Native Americans. It can last from spring until fall. Symptoms at first include redness, burning, and itching, which usually last 2 or 3 days but can persist for weeks. Other symptoms may begin within a few hours of sun exposure but go away in a few hours. They include:
Treatment for PMLE depends on its severity. Other than staying out of the sun and protecting yourself when you are in the sun, you may not need treatment. The rash can clear by itself within 7 to 10 days.
Solar urticaria. Symptoms may develop within minutes of exposure to sun. If large areas of skin are involved, symptoms may include:
- Raised areas on the skin (hives or wheals)
- Loss of consciousness
Although the rash usually goes away within hours, you may experience the reaction off and on throughout the years. Antihistamines can treat some cases, but see your doctor for advice.
Other treatment or prevention for PMLE or solar urticaria may include:
- Steroids that go on your skin
- Sunscreen that says “broad-spectrum” on the label, which means it protects against the sun’s UVA and UVB radiation
- Phototherapy with psoralen UV light (PUVA) to desensitize skin to UV light
Nemours Foundation: “Sunburn.”
American Academy of Dermatology: “The Sun and Your Skin.”
The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library: “Photosensitivity.”
eMedicine: “Polymorphous Light Eruption.”
Net Wellness: “Treatment for Sun Poison.”
American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: “Polymorphous Light Eruption.”