Unfortunately, most people have experienced a sunburn at some point in their lives, but not everyone has had a case of sun poisoning. Have you?
For those of us who haven’t, you’re probably wondering, “What does sun poisoning look like?” One of the tell-tale signs is bumps that appear in clusters where the skin was exposed to sun. And it only takes a matter of minutes for sun poisoning to be visible on the body. But you can also be in the sun for hours, end up with a bad sunburn, but not have sun poisoning.
Sun poisoning is often the term used for a severe case of sunburn, but a severe sunburn and true poisoning are two totally different things.
According to Shari Lipner, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine, “Sunburn is redness and inflammation of the skin after too much sun exposure, and it can happen to anyone. However, sun poisoning is a type of rash that only some people get, due to an abnormal immune reaction to the sun.”
Why do some people experience “poisoning” from the sun while others never do? Sun poisoning is actually a type of sun allergy, and Dr. Lipner says that about 10 to 20 percent of the population may have a sun allergy and can therefore experience sun poisoning.
How can you differentiate between a really bad sunburn and actual sun poisoning? In this article, you’ll learn the answer to this question and much more — including the best natural treatment options for sun poisoning.
What Is Sun Poisoning?
Sun Poisoning vs. Sunburn: What Is the Difference?
You can have a sunburn and sun poisoning at the same time, but it’s also possible to have sun poisoning without sunburn. A sunburn is red, painful skin that feels warm when you touch it. It’s the result of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, most often from the sun, but it can also be from artificial sources like sunlamps.
Sun poisoning also occurs after exposure to UV rays, but unlike a sunburn, it’s actually your skin having an allergic reaction to the rays. People who experience an allergy to the sun have their immune systems go into overdrive as a result of their skin being exposed to and changed by the sun.
Causes and Risk Factors
Mayo Clinic says, “Certain medications, chemicals and medical conditions can make the skin more sensitive to the sun. It isn’t clear why some people have a sun allergy and others don’t. Inherited traits may play a role.”
Causes and risk factors can include:
- Heredity (a sun allergy can be inherited)
- Certain medications, such as antibiotics
- A chemical coming in contact with the skin
- Having light skin — since people with light skin are generally considered the most sun-sensitive, which makes them more likely to experience a phototoxic reaction like sun poisoning
Signs and symptoms of sun poisoning usually show up within minutes to hours following exposure to the sun.
Sun Poisoning Symptoms
What does a sun poisoning rash look like? A sun poisoning rash often includes small bumps where the body was exposed to the sun. These bumps can be in dense clusters. What does sun poison feel like? It’s often itchy and can also be painful.
Signs of sun poisoning caused by an allergy include:
- Skin redness
- Itching or pain
- Tiny bumps that may merge into raised patches
- Scaling, crusting or bleeding
- Sun poisoning blisters or hives
Visible sun poisoning symptoms often appear on the “V” of the neck, the backs of the hands as well as the the outside surfaces of the arms and the lower legs. Sun poisoning on lips as well as sun poisoning on feet are possible but less common. Most of the time, skin symptoms are located on areas of the body exposed to sunlight, but rarely the bumps or hives may even appear on skin covered by clothing.
“Sun poisoning” is sometimes used to describe a severe sunburn with symptoms like:
- Skin redness and blistering
- Pain and tingling
- Fever and chills
Types of Sun Allergies and Symptom Duration
How long does it take for sun poisoning to go away? The duration of the reaction depends upon the type of sun allergy. Types of sun allergies include:
- Polymorphous light eruption (PMLE) — Polymorphous light eruption or polymorphic light eruption is a rash caused by sun exposure in individuals who have developed a sensitivity to sunlight. A PMLE rash usually goes away in two to three days without additional sun exposure.
- Actinic prurigo (hereditary PMLE) — This is an inherited form of PMLE seen in people with Native American ancestry, including the Native American populations of North, South and Central America. Actinic prurigo or hereditary PMLE symptoms are more intense than those of classic PMLE. Symptoms also typically start sooner during childhood or adolescence. Like PMLE, actinic prurigo can be worse in warmer/sunnier months in temperate climates. In tropical climates, symptoms can be experienced year round.
- Photoallergic eruption — This allergic skin reaction is triggered by the effect of sunlight on a chemical that has been applied to the skin. The “chemical” is often an ingredient in sunscreen, fragrances, cosmetics or antibiotic ointments. Or, it can be from an ingested drug, such as a prescription medication. The duration of a photoallergic eruption is unpredictable, but typically symptoms will go away after the problem chemical is identified and no longer used externally or internally.
- Solar urticaria — This sun allergy results in hives on sun-exposed skin. Solar urticaria is considered a rare skin condition that most often affects young women. Individual hives usually go away within 30 minutes to two hours, but they often return when skin is exposed to sunlight again.
So, while a severe sunburn can cause skin redness, inflammation, blistering and shedding, sun poisoning usually involves small, itchy bumps on the skin. Typically, a severe sunburn is the result of excessive time spent in the sun without protection, but it only takes minutes to experience sun poisoning.
Your doctor will likely make a diagnosis based on your symptoms, a basic exam of your skin, your medical history and family history (especially Native American ancestry). Photo-testing can also help to diagnosis sun poisoning. This testing involves exposing a small patch of skin to ultraviolet light. Sometimes your doctor may also perform additional testing such as a blood test or skin biopsy.
What will a doctor do for sun poisoning? If it’s a mild case, treatment may not be necessary. Conventional sun poisoning treatment for more severe cases can include steroid pills or creams.
Phototherapy is another form of conventional treatment in which the skin is intentionally exposed to a special lamp that produces ultraviolet rays to gradually get the skin used to sunlight. In a temperate climate, this is often done a few times a week over the course of several weeks in the springtime to lessen the chances of negative sun reactions in the sunnier summer months.
The malaria drug called hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) is also used for some sun allergies.
Recommendations for home treatment of mild sun poisoning are similar to mild sunburn treatment and can include:
- Using a cool compress on the area
- Applying aloe vera gel
- Hydrating with water and electrolyte drinks
- Not scratching
- Staying out of the sun
- Conventional painkillers like ibuprofen or naproxen to decrease pain and swelling
Natural Sun Poisoning Treatment: 6 Remedies
1. Stay Out of the Sun
According to Mayo Clinic, “For mild cases, simply avoiding the sun for a few days may be enough to resolve the signs and symptoms.” Ideally, you may have avoided problematic sun exposure to avoid the poisoning in the first place, but it’s good to know that staying out of the sun for a few days can be enough to have symptoms fade away.
2. Protect Your Skin
What if you have an allergic reaction to the sun but can’t avoid being outdoors for the next few days? Make sure to use a natural broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more.
3. Try Phototherapy (with Real Sunlight)
Instead of artificial ultraviolet light, some doctors may suggest and help you to use controlled exposure to natural sunlight to improve your sun allergy. When done correctly, repeated controlled exposure to the sun’s rays can lead to desensitization to the sun.
Repeated sun exposure has been known to lead to a “hardening” or natural decrease in the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Sun allergy is mostly seen in spring and early summer. With continued exposure to sun during summer months, the skin “hardens” and the likelihood of developing sun allergy diminishes.”
4. Eliminate Possible External and Internal Causes
Are you currently taking a medication or supplement that may be leading to your increased sun sensitivity? Look into the possibility that something you are ingesting may be leading to your overreaction to the sun’s rays. St. John’s wort, for example, is a natural remedy known for increasing sun sensitivity. Conventional medications such as acne treatments, allergy medications, antibiotics, anti-depressants and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are known to increase sun sensitivity.
The same thing goes for products you’re using topically, including perfumes, lotions, exfoliants and even sunblocks. Something you’re applying to your body may contain a synthetic or natural ingredient that is increasing your sun sensitivity.
You may see an elimination of your symptoms once you stop using an offending topical or oral product.
5. Use Natural Moisturizers
Just like with a sunburn, it’s important to keep the problem area moisturized to reduce symptoms. It’s also a great idea to use a natural remedy that is anti-inflammatory and cooling, such as pure aloe vera gel. Coconut oil is another great natural moisturizer you may have on hand already.
6. Be Cautious with Citrus Fruits
As you are healing (and if you want to prevent symptoms in the future), be mindful of your citrus fruit consumption if you’re going to spend time in the sun. Eating a lot of citrus fruits and juices, like orange and grapefruit, can make sunburn and sun poisoning more likely. Why? Citrus fruits have been shown to contain compounds that cause the skin to be more sensitive to light. So if you’ve consumed a lot of citrus and you’re going to be in the sun, it’s even more important that you cover up with clothing and use sunscreen.
How to Prevent Sun Poisoning
Similar to how you can help prevent sunburn, you can help prevent sun poisoning by taking sun-safety precautions such as:
- Wearing protective clothing and hats
- Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen on exposed areas of the body
- Reapplying sunscreen at least every two hours and after you’ve been sweating or in water
- Limiting your sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is at its strongest
- Using sun protection even on cloudy or cool days, especially around water, sand and snow, which can intensify the sun’s rays
- Making sure you are not taking any medications (such as antibiotics or diuretics) or supplements that can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight
- Checking topical products, since many skincare ingredients can also increase sun sensitivity … Read product labels carefully for warnings of increased sun sensitivity.
Seek care from your primary healthcare provider or a dermatologist if you have a rash on large areas of your body, including parts that are covered by clothing or an itchy rash that does not improve with treatment. Also seek medical attention if you have abnormal bleeding under the skin in sun-exposed areas.
Immediate emergency care is warranted if you have signs of a life-threatening allergic reaction, which can include but are not limited to skin hives, swelling around the lips or eyes, difficulty breathing or trouble swallowing.
- A severe sunburn is often referred to as sun poisoning, but true sun poisoning is actually an allergic reaction to ultraviolet rays from the sun.
- Common symptoms of sun poisoning include small red bumps on areas of the skin exposed to the sun.
- Spending excessive time in the sun without sun protection can result in a bad sunburn, but not necessarily sun poisoning. At the same time, poisoning can occur after just a matter of minutes of UV light exposure because it is the result of a sun allergy.
- How long does sun poisoning last? It depends upon the type of sun allergy causing your symptoms.
- How to manage naturally:
- Avoid additional sun exposure for a few days
- Use a natural sunscreen that is broad spectrum and has an SPF of at least 30
- Try natural phototherapy with a doctor’s guidance
- Make sure you’re not using a medication, supplement or body-care product that could be increasing your sun sensitivity
- Be cautious with citrus fruit and juice consumption if you’re going to spend time in the sun
- Apply natural, soothing moisturizers like aloe and coconut oil