July 24, 2023/Skin Care & Beauty

Are Sunburns and Sun Poisoning the Same? Not Quite

A sunburn will leave you itchy and red, while sun poisoning can feel like an allergic reaction

person in the sun, with sun burn

A sunny day is usually an invitation to get some fresh air, enjoy the beach and, of course, enjoy the sunshine. But many of us have had those times when the sun hits us a little too hard and we wonder: Is this just another sunburn or could it be sun poisoning?

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While both are often partners in crime during the hot summer months, there are differences between sunburns and sun poisoning.

Dermatologist Taylor Bullock, MD, explains that difference — and how to find relief from both.

How to tell the difference between sunburn and sun poisoning

Sun poisoning is essentially a severe, harmful sunburn. It lasts longer than a typical sunburn and the symptoms are more severe. Sunburns typically go away after a few days, but a case of sun poisoning lingers for longer and can manifest through hives, blisters and even nausea.

This is why you may have heard people describe sun poisoning as more of an allergic reaction or “sickness” rather than just a burn. “While both a sunburn and sun poisoning can cause your skin to become red, painful and swollen, sun poisoning will give you additional symptoms that go deeper than the skin,” explains Dr. Bullock.

If you’re experiencing the following symptoms (and they subside after a couple of days), you may have a sunburn:

  • Redness of your skin.
  • Swelling.
  • Itching or tenderness.
  • Skin feels warm to the touch.

As Dr. Bullock noted, sun poisoning symptoms are more severe. “The beginning of sun poisoning can look similar to a sunburn but will have increased redness and irritation,” he continues. “Soon after, many small or large blisters will occur on the skin due to inflammation in the skin. Once the blisters on the skin have ruptured, the skin will start to peel.”

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The following symptoms are common signs of sun poisoning:

  • Severe sunburn.
  • Blisters.
  • Itching or pain.
  • Headache.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Dehydration.
  • Fatigue.
  • Skin feels hot to the touch.
  • Rapid heartbeat.

How to treat sunburns and sun poisoning

As a sunburn can go hand-in-hand with sun poisoning, some of the treatments can be similar. Depending on severity, you can treat your sunburn and a mild case of sun poisoning at home.

To find relief from both a sunburn and sun poisoning:

  • Get out of the sun. If your skin is having a reaction to the sun, you should immediately avoid any more exposure to the sun’s rays. Find shade or get inside to help cool down your skin.
  • Avoid picking at your skin. You’ll likely experience peeling and flaking from both sunburns and cases of sun poisoning. Additionally, with sun poisoning, you’re bound to get blisters. But it’s important to avoid picking at your skin, as this will make your skin more inflamed and could cause scarring.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers. Medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help reduce the pain, stinging and discomfort that can come with intense sunburns and sun poisoning.
  • Rehydrate. One thing that happens during a sunburn and a case of sun poisoning is that your body can become dehydrated. Rehydrate with plenty of water or drinks with electrolytes.
  • Try a cool compress or cold shower. In some cases of less severe sun poisoning or sunburns, you may find relief from just a cool down treatment like using a cold compress or taking a gentle cold shower.
  • Use over-the-counter creams. You can find relief from the burning sensation, redness and itching by applying store-bought ointments like hydrocortisone or natural aloe vera creams and gels. But take caution: In sun poisoning, over-the-counter creams can sometimes make sun poisoning even worse!

In severe cases, sun poisoning may need additional medical attention and specific treatments, including:

  • Topical or oral medications. In severe cases, sun poisoning may need to be treated with steroids or antibiotics to help treat the affected areas and prevent infections.
  • Intravenous fluid (IV) treatment. Extreme sun poisoning may also need to be treated through an intravenous fluid (IV) treatment due to severe dehydration.

When to see a doctor or go to the emergency room

Although sun poisoning can be treated and relieved at home, there are some cases where you should go to the emergency room. Once admitted, you may need to receive intravenous (IV) fluids or be treated at the burn unit.

In general, if you’re still feeling extreme, burning pain, as well as widespread blistering on your skin despite at-home treatments, you should seek medical attention.

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In severe cases of sun poisoning, you may also start showing signs of heat stroke. If you experience any of the accompanying symptoms, you should go to the emergency room or see your healthcare provider:

Prevention

To prevent sunburns and sun poisoning, protect your skin from the sun’s rays.

Ensure that each time you head outside, you:

  • Wear proper clothing and hats.
  • Limit your time in the sun (especially in peak hours: from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
  • Stay hydrated throughout the day.
  • Apply and reapply sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher.

The bottom line

The discomforts of sunburn — like redness and itchiness — can be an inconvenience, but they’ll heal with time and over-the-counter treatments. More severe symptoms of sun poisoning — such as nausea, dizziness and blistering — may require a visit to a healthcare provider. Either way, precaution is the best prevention.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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