My dad had a boat when I was growing up. We used to spend every weekend out on the water fishing, snorkeling, water skiing, wakeboarding, and swimming.
I'm embarrassed to admit that we were rarely worried about things like sunscreen or protective clothing.
But that's not all:
We were even stupid enough to coat ourselves in oil, hoping to get a better tan. Even as golden bronzed as we were, we still occasionally got sunburned.
But everything changed for our family the year that my sister got super sick from sun poisoning. From that point on, my mom was adamant that we all wore sunscreen when we went out on the boat.
We thought that was enough. But it wasn't.
Nearly 12 years after my sister had sun poisoning, my father was diagnosed with skin cancer.
By then he had been wearing sunscreen for over a decade, but the damage was done years before.
Fortunately for my family, my dad's skin cancer was caught very early, and after treatment he was fine.
We were lucky!
Your family can learn from the mistakes of my own.
What Is Sun Poisoning?
Sun poisoning, also known as polymorphic light eruption or photodermatitis, is not technically a poisoning of your body by the sun.
Here's what it actually is:
Sun poisoning is commonly used to describe a severe burn on the skin, caused by extended exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays. It also affects your immune system.
But, don't be fooled by the term:
It's not even a real medical diagnosis. It's more of a lay term for a super severe sunburn.
It's also sometimes called a sun allergy.
Although, it can be difficult to correctly identify because in many cases it is very similar to a sunburn.
The most common symptoms are related to a painful reaction on the skin that looks like a rash or blisters. Other symptoms can make you feel like you've got the flu.
Here's what you need to know:
There are two types of sun poisoning
With acute sun poisoning, the symptoms are relatively mild and temporary, and they generally pass after treatment. Most cases fall into this category.
If you have chronic sun poisoning, the symptoms will be much more severe and ongoing. For some people, chronic sun poisoning can be extremely difficult to treat and prevent, so medical advice is essential.
For most people, sun poisoning is not dangerous and little more than a painful irritation.
For others, severe cases do pose the risk of leading to skin cancer.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the number one cause of skin cancer is UV radiation from the sun. Before you start thinking that a tanning bed is a better idea, you should know that the UV light from the bed is just as dangerous as laying out in the direct sunlight.
"The sun is safer to get sun in the winter than in the summertime." False. The truth is, overexposure to the sun in the winter months can put you in as much risk as exposure in the summer. It's true that severe sunburns and poisoning are most common in the spring and summer months when the sun is at its most potent. Although even in the winter, the sun can burn your skin, especially if you are in the snow, which reflects the light.
What Does the Skin Look Like When You Have Sun Poisoning?
When you get sun poisoning, your skin looks very red and swollen with a rash or blisters. It can also blister your lips.
There are some other common signs:
You may get tiny bumps that can merge into a large raised patch. It's also common for the skin to get scaley, crusty, or bloody. Sometimes sun poisoning looks similar to eczema or other skin conditions.
How Are Sunburns Different from Sun Poisoning?
It can be difficult to tell the difference between sun poisoning and sunburn because they are very similar. They are both caused by too much exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning bed.
But here's the kicker:
The main difference between them is that sun poisoning is a much worse burn and unlike a sunburn, it also affects your immune system.
So beyond feeling the typical symptoms of a bad sunburn, people with sun poisoning will feel like they've caught the flu too.
To tell the difference:
Usually, a sunburn will go away within a week. It doesn't require medical attention, clearing up over a short time on its own.
Sun poisoning is more dangerous and lasts longer. It also generally requires medical treatment to prevent complications.
Let's dig into that a bit deeper:
Symptoms of a sunburn
Just like with sun poisoning, you can get a sunburn from prolonged exposure to the sun.
The severity of a sunburn depends on how much time you spend in the sun, whether or not you used sunscreen, your location, and your skin type.
The most common symptoms of sunburn include:
Redness and swelling of the skin
It is possible that if you get a burn severe enough you could get some symptoms of the flu, the same way you will with poisoning. Although, even with a terrible sunburn that makes you feel sick, it shouldn't result in a rash or hives.
You can also experience pain, swelling, and redness even with a minor sunburn.
All sunburns eventually heal on their own. You can help soothe your skin by applying aloe vera gel or taking a cooling bath. Over-the-counter pain relievers can be helpful as well. It takes about two to four hours for the symptoms of a sunburn to appear after sun exposure.
You will feel the peak effects after 12 to 24 hours.
"Sunscreen causes cancer." False. There is no scientific evidence to support that claim. However, if you are concerned about it you can use sunblock instead of sunscreen. Sunblock contains titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, these compounds are not absorbed by the skin and instead sit on top of it. That eliminates the fear that cancer-causing chemicals will be absorbed, even if that fear is unfounded.
Symptoms of sun poisoning?
Unlike a sunburn, sun poisoning is an allergic reaction by your skin in response to excessive exposure to UV rays.
Basically, your body is fighting off the sunburn like it would a bee sting or an infection, but mobilizing it's immune system.
It's caused by too much time in the sun without adequate protection. The severity will depend on how long you stay in the sun.
Many of the symptoms are similar to sunburn, here are several other symptoms.:
When to seek medical care:
If you are having chills, fever, nausea, and any of the other symptoms after getting a severe sunburn then you need to contact your doctor because you likely have sun poisoning.
"People with dark skin can't get skin cancer." False. Everyone can get skin cancer. Most skin cancer is attributed to exposure to UV rays, and people of color are less susceptible to that damage, they are not immune to it. People with darker skin are actually more susceptible to other kinds of skin cancer like acral lentiginous melanoma on their hands and feet.
What Causes Sun Poisoning?
And spending too much time in it unprotected. But, of course, that's not all:
There are also several other possible causes. There are even many cases where there is no known cause at all.
Some health conditions can make you more sensitive to the sun and more likely to get sun poisoning.
The following conditions are known to increase your risk:
Medications and chemicals can also make you more susceptible to sun poison.
Here are some examples:
What Are the Risk Factors?
The top 12 sun poisoning risk factors include:
How to Treat Sun Poisoning
If you get a severe sunburn, the very first thing that you need to do is get out of the sun!
Not just into the shade. Get out of the sun.
Dehydration is a serious worry with any sunburn, so immediately drink some water or electrolytes. You can also use cold compresses or water on your burnt skin and take an over-the-counter pain reliever to help with the discomfort.
Aloe vera gel is also helpful.
However, if your symptoms are severe and you believe that you may have sun poisoning, then you need to seek medical attention.
Sun poisoning may be treated by your doctor with the following things:
If over-the-counter pain meds aren't helping enough, your doctor may prescribe stronger painkillers.
Other treatments include light therapy, drug therapy, and dietary changes.
Do not ignore this:
If you get treatment for your sun poisoning right away, it will heal over time.
If you don't treat it immediately, it will get worse.
Without treatment at all, you could have dangerous severe complications, including infection. In some extreme cases, people may have to transfer to the hospital's burn unit for treatment.
Signs you need to call the doctor
If you think that you have sun poisoning, you need to see a doctor right away.
Waiting to seek treatment will make your symptoms worse and could lead to dangerous complications. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between a nasty sunburn and poisoning.
You likely don't need medical attention if you have just a sunburn. However, if that burn lasts for a full week or more, or if your symptoms are getting worse over time, then it's likely not just a sunburn.
In that case, you need to see your doctor. If your symptoms are very severe, or if you are feeling flu-like symptoms, have a fever, feel very dehydrated, or are passing out, then it's time to go to the ER.
The warning signs that you need to seek urgent medical attention include:
"You don't need to put sunscreen on when you tan but don't burn." False. Tanning in and of itself is a sign of skin damage. Melanin makes your skin darker. When your skin is damaged by the sun it produces more melanin to protect your skin cells.
Complications of sun poisoning
Sun poisoning can lead to potentially life-threatening complications if it is left untreated.
Severe hydration is one problem. Another dangerous possibility is an infection.
Complications of Sun Poisoning
Infections often happen when people puncture the skin by scratching at the burn or popping blisters. To avoid this complication try to leave your skin alone.
Leave. It. Alone.
Though if you start to notice oozing or red streaks, then it's time to call the doctor because that could be an indication of infection and you may need antibiotics. There is a final complication that won't show up for a while.
Severe sunburns and poisoning significantly increase your risk of skin cancer.
In most cases, sun poisoning requires medical attention.
There are, however, some home remedies that you can use for nasty sunburns.
First, make sure that you drink plenty of fluids or electrolytes to prevent dehydration.
Cold compresses on the skin will help relieve some of the pain.
If you're in a lot of pain, you should take an anti-inflammatory pain reliever.
A cooling shower or bath can also be helpful. If you take a bath, there are some things that you can add to the water to treat your burn.
Try adding one cup of apple cider vinegar to your bath water (balance pH and promote healing)
An oatmeal bath is especially helpful when your skin is very itchy
Adding two cups of baking soda to your water will ease redness and irritation
Avoid adding any perfumes, bath salts, or soap to the water because they will dry out your already dry burned skin.
Can I Get Sun Poisoning on My Lips?
Yes! Most people know that they should cover up their skin or use sunscreen when they go out in the sun for extended periods. But did you know that you can also get severe burns or poisoning on your lips if you don't use SPF protection on them?
It's true, and it can be extremely uncomfortable, on top of looking gross.
Common symptoms of sunburned lips include deep redness, swelling, and pain. If you have blistering on top of those symptoms, then it's likely that you have sun poisoning on your lips.
If that's the case:
You need to seek medical attention.
Other rare signs could indicate you are having a sun allergy. Those include severely swollen and painful lips, a swollen tongue, or a rash.
If you also experience those symptoms, then you need to seek emergency medical attention right away.
Treatment for burned lips
You have to be careful with how you treat severely burned lips. You can't use the same products on your lips that you use on your sunburned skin in most cases because you don't want to ingest them.
Though there are some things that you can do.
Don't use ice directly on burns or you risk further tissue damage. But, a cold compress may help.
Some Good Treatments
Try dipping a soft washcloth into ice water or cold milk as a cold compress (reduces inflammatory response).
Apply aloe vera to your lips.
Moisturizers like Aquaphor are another excellent idea, but limit them until most of the heat has left your lips. Other moisturizers you can use include Vitamin E, coconut oil, or almond oil.
"You can reverse sun damage." False. Although you can prevent and treat sun damage, you will never be able to reverse it.
Things you should avoid using on your lips
You should never use any products that have lidocaine in them on your lips.
Lidocaine is for numbing the skin, but you never want to ingest it.
Using Vaseline or other petroleum-based products is also a terrible idea. The Vaseline will trap heat in your lips and can make your condition even worse.
The same holds for any ointments that are oil based.
And last but not least:
If you have blisters on your lips, you should avoid popping them. That will also make things worse and could lead to further complications.
Can Sun Poisoning Lead to Skin Cancer?
Ultraviolent light is harmful to the skin. It can cause severe sunburns and sun poisoning. It can also lead to something much worse.
When you spend long periods in the sun, especially if you're not wearing sunscreen, the UV rays can cause mutations in the DNA of your skin cells. Those mutations can eventually lead to skin cancer.
The more sunburns that you get, the more you increase your chance of getting skin cancer. The Cancer Research UK says that getting a sunburn just once every two years can triple your risk of getting skin cancer.
Here's the really scary part:
Often those skin cell mutations caused by sunburns and sun poisoning happened before the age of 18.
That doesn't mean that you will develop cancer at the age of 18. It does, however, significantly increase your risk for later in life.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every year than all other cancers combined. A big reason for that is that we spend so much time in the sun and we repeatedly burn our skin.
Skin cancer is so prevalent that one in five people will develop it by the age of 70.
An estimated 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers are because of overexposure to UV radiation from the sun. Plus a recent UK study found that about 86 percent of melanomas directly related to exposure to UV rays.
So, wear your sunscreen and make sure everyone else is too.
How Long Do Sunburns and Sun Poisoning Last?
The amount of time that symptoms of sunburn or poisoning will last depends largely on how severe the burn is. It also depends on how quickly you treat it.
If you have sun poisoning and you don't get treatment immediately, your symptoms will likely get worse and last for much longer. Not everyone reacts the same to sun exposure.
Generally speaking, the more susceptible that you are to burning in the sun, or the more risk factors that you have, the longer your symptoms will last.
For mild sunburns, you will get some redness and pain which can last from three to five days. The pain usually lasts for 24 to 48 hours.
Toward the last couple of days, don't be surprised if your skin starts to peel as it regenerates. Peeling is perfectly normal after a sunburn and by the time that it starts you should no longer feel pain.
Moderate sunburns are even more painful.
You will also notice swelling, redness, and your skin will be hot to the touch. If you get a moderate sunburn, it will peak about 24 hours after your sun exposure ends and it will last for about a week. Then your skin will peel for a few more days. Then subside over the next day or two.
For mild and moderate sunburns you should be able to treat yourself at home.
However, if you find that your symptoms last longer than a week or if they get worse over time, then you need to see a doctor. The pain will start to go away after 48 hours. Your skin may get very itchy after that.
Sometimes with a moderate sunburn, blisters will show up a few days after you get burned. The blisters can last up to a week.
Keep your hands to yourself: You should avoid popping the blisters. Popping them slows down the healing process, and it can lead to further complications like infection.
Very severe sunburns or poisoning usually require a visit to the doctor or even the hospital.
Severe burns will be the most painful and your skin will be lobster red and blistered.
The extreme pain with a severe sunburn will last for several days or even a week or longer. If you treat it immediately, it will go away in about two weeks.
However, if you wait to seek treatment your symptoms will likely get worse over time and will last even longer. The deep red color of your skin will take several days to start to subside.
Anti-inflammatories will help, but the swelling will also last for several days. Fevers and nausea are also very common with severe burns. Though they shouldn't continue for more than a couple of days.
If they persist longer, you need to see a doctor.
Blistering is another common symptom with severe burns and poisoning. The blisters will last a week or more. Just like with moderate sunburn blistering, you should avoid popping them.
If they pop on their own, use mild soap and water to clean the area. Then cover it with a clean wet dressing.
This is crucial:
Keep the blisters out of the sun while they are healing.
Ways You Can Avoid Sun Poisoning
The symptoms of sunburn or sun poisoning are temporary.
Although, it is crucial to understand that the damage to your skin and DNA is permanent. The long term effects of these burns include premature wrinkles and aging, sun spots, and even skin cancer. Plus it only takes one nasty sunburn to do the damage.
So it is essential that you protect your skin every single time that you go out in the sun.
I can't emphasize this point enough. If you are going out in the sun, you need to put on sunscreen. That means always, even in the winter and on cloudy days.
What kind of sunscreen should I use?
When you're looking for sunscreen, you should pay attention to the sun protection factor, or the SPF rating. The higher the SPF, the more protection it offers.
Although you should note that more expensive doesn't necessarily mean better. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you use a "broad-spectrum" water-resistant sunscreen with at least a 30 SPF year round.
If you have had skin cancer or pre-cancer, then you should use an even higher SPF. Many of the new sunscreens have an SPF of 45 or higher. Anyone who has a high risk for severe sunburn or sun poisoning should also use those with a higher SPF.
The Food and Drug Administration updated the labeling rules for sunscreens in 2012.
The labels will now show you both the UVA and the UVB protection. Products that protect from both the UVA and UVB rays are called "broad spectrum" sunscreens.
Companies are no longer allowed to label their products "waterproof" or "sweatproof" or "sunblock."
Because no sunscreen is truly waterproof or sweatproof and none of them can completely block the sun. Water resistant sunscreens are your best bet if you are swimming or if you sweat a lot.
It is essential that you reapply it often, especially when you get out of the water or finish exercising. The American Academy of Dermatology says that you should use a shot glass amount of sunscreen every time you put it on, and you should reapply every two hours.
Another thing that you should look for with sunscreens is whether or not they contain PABA, or para amino benzoic acid. Many people have real skin sensitivities to PABA.
Because of those common sensitivities, most sunscreens no longer contain PABA. If you find a product that does include this chemical, it's best to avoid it. You should never use PABA on children younger than six months.
The best way to use sunscreen
The American Academy of Dermatology says that you should apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go out in the sun.
It takes about that long for it to absorb into your skin. If you wait until you're in the sun to apply it, you will be in danger for that 30 minutes that it takes to get into your skin.
That's plenty of time for your skin to burn.
Adults should use about one ounce of sunscreen, or a shot glass full, to fully cover the whole body every time they apply.
If you go in the water, you should reapply as soon as you get out. Whether you're swimming or not, you should reapply every two hours.
Make sure that you also cover all bare skin.
Don't forget about your ears, back of the neck, face, legs, and the tops of your feet. If you're balding or have thinning hair, you should also apply it to your scalp or wear a hat.
People who get burned often don't use enough sunscreen or forget to reapply it. You can also get burned if you use expired sunscreen. So be sure to check the date!
Who should use sunscreen?
When I say that everyone should use sunscreen, I mean everyone. It's true that some people are more susceptible to burning than others. Though anyone can get sun damage if they don't wear sunscreen. The following people need to use SPF 30 or higher every time they go in the sun:
Avoid peak sun hours and tanning beds
Most tanning beds use UV bulbs. So you can be just as severely burned laying in a tanning bed as you can when you go out in the direct sunlight.
To prevent sun poisoning:
You should also avoid going outside during peak sun hours, 11 am to 3 pm, especially if you are sensitive to the sun or prone to burning.
"You don't have to wear sunscreen if your makeup has sunscreen in it." False. Cosmetics have SPF that is much lower than the recommended SPF30. In fact, you should always put sunscreen under your makeup in the morning, and make sure you reapply it every two hours throughout the day if you are outside.
Wear protective clothing
To put this in straightforward terms, the more you cover your skin with protective clothing or sunscreen the more you're protected from the sun's dangerous radiation. Although, not all clothing is protective.
UV rays can go right through some clothes.
The general rule is the tighter the weave or knit in fabrics, the more UV rays it can keep out. Clothes also come with a rating similar to those used on sunscreen.
With clothing, the UPF rating tells you how effective it is at shielding against the sun. The higher the UPF, the better. You should look for clothes that are rated 30 or higher for the best protection.
If you are going to wear elastic, like stretchy leggings, for example, make sure that you get the correct size. Overstretching the fabric will lower the UPF rating.
It's also a good idea to wash your clothes a few times before you wear them out in the sun. Doing this will cause the spaces between the fibers to shrink which raises the UPF and gives you better protection.
It's also an excellent idea to wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses to protect your eyes, face, ears, and neck.
Keep infants out of direct sunlight
Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends keeping children under the age of six months out of direct sunlight.
All children over the age of six months need to wear sunscreen.
They also suggest that you test new sunscreen on your child's wrist before you try to use it in the sun. If your child has any kind of skin or eye irritation from it, then you need to choose a different brand.
You should also be careful when applying sunscreen to your child's face. Thoroughly cover it, but avoid the eyes.
A Final Thought on Sun Poisoning
Overexposure to the sun is undoubtedly dangerous, and you should take steps to avoid burning your skin.
But the sun isn't all bad.
For many of us, we feel significantly better when we get out in the sunshine. A fun tennis match or a round of golf or even working in the garden are far better for your health than laying on the couch indoors and watching TV.
The sun also has the benefit of helping your body to make Vitamin D. For many people it even works as a natural anti-depressant.
Though as much as we love spending an afternoon outdoors, we have to be smart about it.
Enjoy the sun, but remember that like so many other things in life, moderation is key. Sunburns are no fun. Sun poisoning is even worse.
Fortunately, there are things that you can do to prevent them while still being able to enjoy the sunshine.
If I could give you just one piece of advice that will save you hours of agony it would be to wear sunscreen! Every single time you go out in the sun, even on cloudy days, and no matter what your skin type is, you need to protect your skin with sunscreen.
Protective clothing also helps. If you are particularly susceptible to sunburns or if you have several of the risk factors that we have listed, then you need to take extra precautions, like avoiding the sun during peak hours.
Now we would love to hear from you! Have you ever had sun poisoning? What about a severe sunburn? How did you treat it? Let us know about your experience in the comments section below.