What Is Sun Poisoning?

Sun poisoning is a scary-sounding name for a common condition, but it doesn’t actually mean you’ve been poisoned (the sun isn’t poisonous, after all). What it does mean is that you’ve been severely sunburned. Sunburns are quite common; all it takes is fifteen minutes of exposure to get one. Sunburns are the results of the inflammation caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The longer you stay out in the sun without some form of protection, the higher your risk for developing a severe sunburn. Some people are more susceptible than others; the fairer your skin and hair, the more likely you are to become severely burned and develop sun poisoning.

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There are several different types of sun poisoning. The most basic form can cause symptoms to manifest on your skin and elsewhere in your body. The affected area of your skin will become red and may become blistered and painful. Some tingling and swelling is also common. Symptoms which you may not associate with typical sunburns can also develop, for example a fever with chills, a headache, dizziness, nausea, and dehydration.

Another type of sun poisoning is called polymorphous light eruption (PMLE). PLME affects one in every ten people in the US and is more common in women. PLME typically affects people who aren’t used to a particular climate and are exposed to more sunlight than they are adapted to. Reactions usually occur starting within a half hour of exposure and may take several hours to appear. A PLME reaction takes the form of a severe rash comprising small bumps or hives all over the body or in dense clusters. Hives typically appear on the arms, lower legs, and chest. The condition may improve with more exposure or it may get worse. In Native Americans the condition may be hereditary and also include fatigue, chills, nausea, and headache.

A third type of sun poisoning is called solar urticaria—a type of sun allergy. This condition manifests very quickly (though it may take an hour or more of exposure before this occurs) and can cause itching, redness, blisters or wheals, wheezing and dizziness. Some people with solar urticaria will actually pass out. The blisters usually go away within hours. Solar urticaria is quite rare and is usually treated using desensitization.

While “sun poisoning” may sound alarming at first, it’s rarely a serious condition, although some of the reactions may cause serious loss of fluids and other vital problems if not treated in extreme cases. Sun poisoning does not indicate that you have a disease or another underlying malady. Solar urticaria is probably the most severe of these conditions, but it is also the rarest. Most people who suffer from severe sunburn can get relief simply by getting out of the sun, taking a cool shower, hydrating, moisturizing, and taking an over-the-counter NSAID for the pain. If you experience very painful sunburn or blisters, swelling in your face, a fever, nausea, severe headache or dehydration, faintness or confusion, seek medical assistance immediately.

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