How Can I Tell If I Have Sun Poisoning?

May 14, 2024

by  | May 14, 2024 | Healthy Living

Two hours. You’ve just applied sunscreen for a trip out on the kayak and you’ve got two hours before you need to seek shade or reapply it. You’ve struggled with keeping to that timeline in the past, but now that you are experiencing frustrating sun-related symptoms, you are redoubling your efforts to watch the clock more closely, not only for your benefit, but for your child’s as well.

Last spring you were puzzled by the appearance of a rash you thought was just a sunburn and tiny blisters on your chest after your vacation to the beach *following a long, dreary winter only to find out that you seem to have developed an allergy to the sun and are at risk for sun poisoning if you aren’t careful.

What is Sun Poisoning?

Though it’s not a formal medical term, sun poisoning is a form of sun allergy. Your dermatologist explained that you had developed and fairly common case of sun poisoning, an issue he sees in his fair-haired patients after a sun-chasing trip south. Sun poisoning occurs when a person’s immune system misidentifies otherwise normal and healthy skin cells that have been exposed to and damaged by the sun’s UV rays as “foreign” and mounts a protective defense against them. The bad part about sun poisoning is that it can continue to reappear with each exposure to sunlight. The form of allergy you experienced is called Polymorphus Light Eruption (PMLE) and was pretty mild.

How Serious is Sun Poisoning?

Not every sunburn is a case of sun poisoning despite the red skin. In a sunburn, the skin is smooth where the skin affected by a sun allergy or sun poisoning is lumpy and bumpy. A sunburn goes away pretty quickly over a few days, but the symptoms of sun poisoning may not become obvious until several hours to a couple days after exposure. Sun poisoning doesn’t affect everyone the same or with the same severity. Fairer skinned people and those with a family history of skin cancer tend to be more susceptible.
Other factors that may contribute to a person’s susceptibility to sun poisoning include having red hair, taking certain antibiotics, lupus medicines, topical medicines, and even certain plants that can cause phototoxicity if they are touched when the sun is shining, such as giant hogweed.

Several hours after excess sun exposure you can develop an itchy, blistering rash that makes the thought of anything touching your fiery skin awful. You may also feel nauseated, get chills and a headache, and feel extremely thirsty. These may also be signs that you are severely dehydrated, which is a very serious condition. The effects of sun poisoning can last weeks, depending upon how severe the case.

Additional Signs of Sun Poisoning:

  • Peeling skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Lip blisters

Prevention is Key

Preventing sun poisoning begins with prudent sun protection practices. Limiting exposure during peak sunlight hours, between 10 am and 4 pm, especially for children, is of primary importance. Children require special consideration when it comes to sun exposure. It is important to keep children cool, hydrated, and out of direct sunlight—avoiding it altogether for any infant younger than six months. Umbrellas and wide-brimmed hats can help protect children’s skin and so can dressing them in lightweight yet tightly woven clothing that covers the arms and legs. If sun exposure can’t be avoided, apply broad-spectrum sunscreen to the exposed skin of any child six months or older. It is estimated that 50 to 80% of skin sun damage that leads to skin cancers occurs in childhood and adolescence.

Tips to avoid Sun Poisoning:

  • Avoid tanning beds or lamps, base tans do not help avoid sunburn.
  • Replace sunscreen that is over 3 years old.
  • Use water-resistant, broad-spectrum lip balm and sunscreen SPF 30 or higher
  • You can still get burnt even on cloudy days, so use sunscreen.
  • Apply at least 2 TBSP of sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside.
  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours or more if swimming or perspiring.
  • Titanium oxide and zinc oxide (best for sensitive skin) should be applied over any other products.
  • Insect repellant should be applied last, over everything else.
  • Check to see if any of your medications increase sun sensitivity.
  • Wear sunglasses—the eyes are very sensitive to UV light and can get sunburnt resulting in cornea damage. Check for a UV rating label and look for wrap-around glasses for better coverage.
  • Cosmetics containing alpha hydroxy acid increase sun sensitivity, so wear with care.
  • Consider protective clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), the higher the better.

When to Seek Medical Attention

  • Vigilance is key in identifying when professional medical care is warranted. Symptoms such as large blisters, severe swelling, or worsening pain signal potential complications requiring urgent evaluation.
  • Seek immediate medical care if you are sunburned and experience:
  • A fever over 103 F (39.4 C) with vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Dehydration
  • An infection
  • Cold skin, dizziness, or faintness

Basking in the sun’s warmth offers myriad benefits, but it’s important to be aware of the hazards. Sun poisoning, though preventable, requires prompt attention. If you are concerned that you or a loved one has sun poisoning, make an appointment today at AFC Ballantyne where we can help get you back on the path to good health.

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