What is sun poisoning and what makes it different from sunburn

Avoid sunburns and sun poisoning by wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30. In order to avoid sun poisoning, be sure to keep reapplying a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen throughout the day.
  • Sun poisoning is a severe sunburn that causes symptoms like a rash, nausea, dehydration, and dizziness.
  • You may be more at risk for sun poisoning if you take medications like antibiotics or acne treatments, or if you have conditions such as lupus, eczema, or rosacea.
  • At-home treatments for sun poisoning include staying hydrated, taking an anti-inflammatory, and using a moisturizer with aloe.
  • You should see your doctor if you have a fever, widespread burns with blisters, or if your condition doesn’t improve within a few days.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with a private practice in New York City.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Sun poisoning is a severe case of sunburn. If left untreated, it can have long-term consequences like a greater risk of skin cancer.

Here’s what you need to know about the symptoms of sun poisoning, how to treat it, and how to prevent it in the future.

What are the symptoms of sun poisoning?

Symptoms of sun poisoning can be flu-like in nature and include:

  • Nausea, chills, and fever
  • Dehydration
  • Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or confused
  • An itchy red rash
  • Pain, tingling, or swelling of the skin
  • Headache

These symptoms differ from a sunburn where your skin becomes red, painful, and warm to the touch. Sun poisoning has more severe symptoms that can affect your entire body and may need medical attention.

Symptoms of sun poisoning generally last for two to three days, but in some cases, they can continue for weeks.

Can people with darker skin get sun poisoning?

People with darker skin can get sun poisoning but they are less at risk compared to people with light skin.

That’s because people with lighter skin have less of a protective pigment in their skin called eumelanin compared to people with darker skin.

Eumelanin is a dark brown pigment that prevents UV light from penetrating deep into the skin. That’s why people with darker skin are less prone to sunburn and sun poisoning.

Other risk factors for sun poisoning

Some medical conditions can make your skin more sensitive to the sun and prone to sun poisoning.

Lupus. If you have lupus, an autoimmune disorder, your body has a harder time getting rid of the damaged skin cells that come from a bad sunburn. When dead skin cells aren’t cleared away, your immune system may treat them as foreign invaders and trigger inflammatory symptoms like painful rashes. Lupus patients must wear sunscreen every day.

Eczema. Although some people with eczema find that sunlight improves their symptoms, certain types of eczema can make you unusually sensitive to sunlight and more prone to serious sunburns or sun poisoning. Dermatologists think that this may be caused by an allergic reaction to sunlight.

Rosacea. People with Rosacea, a condition that causes a red flush or bumps on your face, are overly sensitive to sunlight. This is because sunlight can cause more blood to flow to your face, dilating your blood vessels and making rosacea flushing more severe.

Certain medications, like some antibiotics and acne medications, can also make you more sensitive to sunlight. Because UV light activates certain compounds in these medications that can damage your skin cells leaving them more susceptible to further damage from the sun.

Some of these medications include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Diuretics
  • Calcium-channel blockers
  • Acne treatments
  • Over the counter antihistamines (such as Benadryl)
  • Over the counter anti-inflammatories (such as Advil or Aleve)
  • St. Johns Wort

How to treat sun poisoning

If you have sun poisoning, you may be able to treat it by yourself at home with the following steps:

  • Use a fragrance-free moisturizer with aloe: If you don’t have open blisters, you can put a light moisturizer on your skin, Zeichner says. Aloe extract is an important ingredient to look for because it forms a seal on the surface of your skin and calms irritation.
  • Stay hydrated: You lose more moisture from your body when your outermost layer of skin is damaged, Zeichner says. That’s why, to help speed the healing process along, it’s important to stay hydrated if you have sun poisoning or extensive sunburn.
  • Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs: Taking medications like aspirin or ibuprofen can help soothe redness and swelling due to inflammation, Zeichner says.

However, you may need to see a medical professional, depending on your symptoms.

You should see a doctor if:

How to prevent sun poisoning

It can take fewer than 15 minutes outside to get a sunburn. While sunburns don’t always lead to sun poisoning, you can greatly improve your odds by avoiding sunburns altogether.

The best way to prevent sunburns is to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. Broad-spectrum means that the sunscreen protects against both types of UV radiation: UVA and UVB rays.

“Look for a product with at least SPF 30 and the words ‘broad-spectrum’ on the label,” Zeichner says, adding that you should reapply sunscreen every two hours or immediately after heavy sweating or swimming.

Peak hours of sunlight – when UV rays are strongest – are between 10 am and 3 pm, so you may want to stay in the shade during those hours to avoid sunburn and sun poisoning.

If you are going to be in the sun, especially during peak hours, “make sure to wear some protective clothing, broad-brimmed hats, and UV protecting sunglasses,” Zeichner says.

Sun poisoning is a potentially dangerous condition but there are ways to avoid it using protective clothing and sunscreen. If you do get sun poisoning, be sure to monitor your symptoms and get medical help if you need it.

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