Is it sunburn or something more?

Lifespan Blog Team

For many people, getting a sunburn is one of the main health concerns of summer. Sometimes we forget to apply enough sunscreen, we get caught up splashing in the water, or simply think the sun’s rays aren’t too strong that day. We typically know what a traditional sun burn feels and looks like: they are uncomfortable, cause skin redness, and often peel during the healing process. However, when it comes to sun poisoning, most people are unaware of the symptoms and treatments.

What is sun poisoning?

No, you have not been poisoned. In its most basic explanation, sun poisoning is essentially a very severe sunburn. It occurs when you have been exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays without protection for an extended period of time, and in addition to sunburn can include such symptoms as fever, chills, and nausea. People with fair skin and hair are at a higher risk, as well as those who have a family history of skin cancer. The difference between a burn and poisoning lies in the symptoms and treatment. 

Symptoms

People with sun poisoning usually don’t know it because for the first 6-12 hours, it presents the same symptoms as a sunburn. In addition to mild sunburn symptoms, people with sun poisoning often experience:

  • Blistering or peeling skin
  • Severe redness and pain
  • Fever and chills
  • Dehydration
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness or fainting

Treatments

Most sun poisoning cases can be treated with at-home remedies. To treat sun poisoning at home, try:

  • Soaking or showering in cool (not cold) water to ease discomfort
  • Applying aloe vera or a thick moisturizer to the area to conserve moisture
  • Drinking lots of water to retain hydration
  • Taking an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help with pain

Seek medical attention right away if it is severe enough that you experience blisters, facial swelling, headache and dizziness, or upset stomach. A doctor may treat you with:

  • IV fluids for hydration and electrolyte regulation
  • Prescription medication, whether ingested or topical, to help blistered skin and prevent infection

Preventing sun poisoning

Prevention of sun poisoning is the same as that of sunburn. You may also take extra precautions if you are at a higher risk.

  • Wear a sunblock of at least SPF 30 and that is “broad spectrum.” This means that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Apply 15 minutes before going out in the sun and reapply every 2-4 hours or after getting wet.
  • The sun is strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Water, sand, and even snow can intensify the sun’s rays.
  • Wear a hat and sunglasses to protect your face and neck.
  • Some medications make skin more sensitive to light, including some acne medications, oral contraceptive, antibiotics, antidepressants and heart medications. If you take any of these, take extra precautions.

During your time in the sun, it is important to protect yourself from conditions that may prevent further summer fun. If you feel like you have sun poisoning, remember to seek medical attention as soon as possible to prevent further complications. Megan Ranney, MD, attending emergency physician and researcher with the Injury Prevention Center at Rhode Island Hospital, reminds us, "No one wants to ruin their summer with a severe sunburn or sun poisoning. Please take common sense precautions to keep yourself and your family healthy: apply sunscreen, stay out of direct sun, and drink plenty of water."

Following the guidelines above will help ensure a safe and healthy summer for you and your family.

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