It’s that familiar tenderness you associate with the average sunburn — the red shoulder or thigh that momentarily turns white when you press a finger against it.
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But then, things take a turn for the worse after a few hours. You develop a blistering rash that itches and burns like mad. You start getting the chills and/or you get extremely thirsty. You might even experience nausea. These are a few possible symptoms of what we know as sun poisoning.
Family medicine doctor Matthew Goldman, MD, explains what sun poisoning is, how long it can last and ways you can prevent it from happening.
Symptoms of sun poisoning
Even though sun poisoning isn’t a formal medical term, we’ve all heard of it. It often mimics a flu bug or allergic reaction. As a result, you can find yourself shivering in bed with a headache, fever and chills — all wrapped up with the redness, pain and sensitivity of a sun-scorched skin patch.
Sun poisoning can cause a range of symptoms (depending on the severity). These may include:
- Severe rash.
- Blistering or peeling skin.
- Shortness of breath.
Sometimes, it can also cause blisters to form on your lips.
Can sun poisoning make you sick?
The answer is a complicated one. When you have sun poisoning, you’re not actually poisoned by UV (ultraviolet) rays. What you’re actually experiencing is intense pain and other reactions from the damage dealt to your skin. If you’re experiencing sickness, nausea, dizzying or general illness, chances are, this is as a result of being severely dehydrated.
It’s important that if you experience any of these symptoms, you drink plenty of water and electrolytes to keep yourself hydrated and clear-minded. It’s also important to avoid touching the affected areas whenever possible.
How long does it take for sun poisoning to go away?
Sun poisoning can last weeks depending on the severity of the burn. If you scratch or pick at the burn, you run the risk of getting an infection. If you notice any bleeding or oozing, you should see your doctor immediately because it could be a sign of infection.
Treatment for sun poisoning can include:
- Cold baths or cold compresses.
- Steroid creams.
- Oral steroids.
- Prescription pain medications.
- Topical antibiotics.
- IV fluids for dehydration.
Facts about sun poisoning
Sun poisoning isn’t well understood. Here are some important things to know:
1. Causes aren’t clearly understood
There are a lot of possible causes for sun poisoning and in some cases, it has no known cause. Sun poisoning is more likely to occur in some people than others, especially if you have fair skin, have a family history of skin cancer or live near the equator. Still, sun poisoning does not affect everyone.
2. Most people don’t realize what can put you at risk
Certain pre-existing conditions, medications and/or chemical exposure may predispose someone to sun poisoning. This can include lupus, certain antibiotics, topical medications or contact with certain plants.
3. Treatment varies depending on your specific symptoms
Sun poisoning affects different people differently, so doctors tend to focus treatment on a person’s specific symptoms.
4. Suspected cases warrant a doctor’s visit
If you have symptoms of sun poisoning, it’s important to see your medical provider. After examining you, they can determine the severity of the problem, as well as the best treatment.
How to prevent sun poisoning
To prevent sun poisoning, you want to take the same precautions that help you avoid sunburn. Here are some important tips to follow the next time you go outside:
- Use sunscreen. Use broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Apply this 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply at least every two hours.
- Wear protective clothing, such as long sleeves, sunglasses, gloves and broad-brim hats. Tightly woven fabrics, thick and/or dark-colored clothing are also useful for protection.
- Avoid peak hours in the summer months. This means staying out of the sun for extended periods of time between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Keep infants younger than 6 months out of direct sunlight.
- Avoid tanning beds.
- Be aware of medication side effects.