Too much sun exposure can sometimes go beyond just an unpleasant sunburn. It also can lead to sun poisoning.
With sun poisoning, the sun doesn’t actually poison your skin — although it may feel like it. Sun poisoning is actually an overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun’s rays that causes a reaction in the body beyond just the skin.
While a sunburn will cause red, painful skin, it doesn’t cause the symptoms that occur elsewhere in the body like sun poisoning does. “Sun poisoning is likely a combination of the body’s response to a severe sunburn in addition to overall dehydration,” says Dr. Ashley Eisensohn, a dermatopathologist and Mohs surgeon at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.
Symptoms of Sun Poisoning
Here are some of the symptoms of sun poisoning:
— Blistering of the skin that eventually peels.
— Fever and other flu-like symptoms.
— Loss of consciousness.
— Muscle aches.
— Nausea and vomiting.
— Red, painful skin.
— Small bumps that look like hives.
The symptoms of sun poisoning may last for a couple of days, although recovery to the skin can take a couple of weeks.
[Read: Sunscreen Recommendations.]
Risk Factors for Sun Poisoning
There are some factors that can put you at higher risk for sun poisoning:
— You have fair skin.
— You have lupus, as sun exposure could trigger certain skin symptoms like a rash. This is because when you have lupus, your cells can be more sensitive to damage caused by UV radiation.
— You have a family history of skin cancer.
— You live near the equator.
— You’re using medications that make you more sensitive to sun exposure, says Dr. Lela Lankerani, a board-certified dermatologist with Westlake Dermatology in Marble Falls, Texas. These may include tetracycline antibiotics, retinoid products and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
— You spend a lot of time outside in the sun without shelter or shade. This may include athletes and construction workers, for example, says Dr. Alexander Zuriarrain, a board-certified plastic surgeon with Zuri Plastic Surgery in Miami.
Aside from the pain and discomfort caused by sun poisoning, there are other reasons why it’s dangerous. Getting sun poisoning can increase your risk for skin cancer in the future.
This includes basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers as well as melanoma, the more severe type of skin cancer, says board-certified physician Dr. Matthew Zarraga, a cosmetic and general dermatologist at Z-ROC Dermatology in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Even just one blistering sunburn from your childhood can double your risk for melanoma in adulthood, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Plus, the dehydration caused by sun poisoning may decrease your blood pressure, cause fatigue and make you faint. Depending on the severity of your heat exposure during your time in the sun, there’s a risk for heat stroke as well, Zuriarrain says.
Heat stroke is what happens when your body gets overheated and can no longer control its own temperature. Heat stroke is something different than a stroke that blocks blood flow to the brain. There are about 700 heat-related deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How to Treat Sun Poisoning
There are a few things to do for sun poisoning treatment:
— Get the person out of direct sunlight as fast as possible.
— Offer a cool (not cold) bath. A cold bath can be too much of a shock to the body.
— Apply aloe, or another type of sunburn relief product, to the skin.
— Offer plenty of fluids, including water and sports drinks or other electrolyte drinks. Electrolytes are minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium that help balance your body’s fluid levels. These types of drinks are helpful to replace lost fluids due to dehydration.
— Use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (like aspirin or ibuprofen) to help manage pain.
— Use cold compresses on the skin.
— Avoid peeling the blistering skin as this can lead to infection, Lankerani cautions.
You should go to the ER right away if you have sun poisoning and you lose consciousness. You should also seek immediate medical care if you suspect sun poisoning in an infant or an adult older than age 65. If you’re not sure if whether someone you’re with has sun poisoning or how to treat them, seek medical care.
It’s also time to go to seek medical care for sun poisoning if the following symptoms still occur after the first 12 hours of sun exposure:
— Nausea and vomiting. You don’t want to delay medical care for sun poisoning if someone can’t maintain good hydration because of their nausea and vomiting, Zuriarrain says.
A doctor can offer several types of treatments for sun poisoning:
— Antibiotics for an infection. An infection may occur on the skin from picking at the sunburned skin or puncturing blisters.
— Fluids given intravenously to help treat dehydration.
— Pain medications.
— Steroid pills.
Once the redness and inflammation from sun poisoning decreases, it’s also a good idea to see a dermatologist to assess the skin, Zarraga says.
Sun Poisoning Prevention
The long-standing advice you’ve heard on how to avoid sunburns also applies to preventing sun poisoning. Here are a few tips:
— Use protective clothing in the sun, including sunglasses, long sleeves and wide-brimmed hats, Lankerani says.
— Look for clothing with built-in sun protection. Some sportswear and beachwear have a UPF label, short for Ultraviolet Protection Factor. Clothing with a UPF of 30 to 49 offers very good protection, while a UPF of 50 or higher offers excellent skin protection, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
— Wear sunscreen. Many dermatologists recommend mineral-based sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide with an SPF of 30 or 50. Reapply your sunscreen every two hours or more frequently if you’re in the pool or the ocean.
— Check your local UV index, which indicates how strong the intensity of UV radiation from the sun is. Numbers 6 to 11+ indicate high UV levels, so you have to be especially careful about sun exposure.
— Avoid spending a lot of time in the sun during its peak hours, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
— Find shady spots if you must spend time outdoors during peak hours.
— While it’s always important to stay hydrated, increase your fluid intake when you’re out in the sun.
— Stay aware of any side effects from medications, as some will raise your sensitivity to sunlight, Eisensohn says.
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