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“Sunburn is common in summer months when we spend more time outside in the sun,” said Victoria D'Costa, DO, Catholic Health Primary Care Physician. “But taking steps like wearing sunscreen and protective clothing and seeking shade is important. Too much exposure to the sun can lead to sun poisoning and long-term complications like skin cancer.”


How is sunburn different than sun poisoning?

A sunburn happens when you are exposed to excessive ultraviolet light (UV) from being in the sun or using a tanning bed. Symptoms are typically mild and disappear after several days. Sun poisoning is a more severe sunburn with side effects that mimic the flu or an allergic reaction. In addition to skin discoloration, pain and skin sensitivities associated with a typical sunburn, the symptoms of sun poisoning can escalate and require medical attention.

What are the symptoms of sunburn?

Common sunburn symptoms include:

  • Skin is hot and tender when touched
  • Skin shows redness or discoloration
  • Skin swells
  • Skin is itchy

“Get out of the sun immediately if you are showing symptoms of sunburn before your symptoms escalate to sun poisoning,” said Dr. D’Costa.

She noted you should also be aware of the signs of heat illnesses.


How do I treat a sunburn?

Use these tips to treat a sunburn:

  • Cool down your skin. Take a cool shower or use cool compresses to lower your skin’s temperature.
  • Moisturize your skin. Apply a moisturizer cream or lotion while your skin is still wet to help seal in moisture. Use aloe vera gel. If itchy, use a 1% hydrocortisone cream. Do not use ointments, petroleum jelly, or creams with alcohol, benzocaine, or lidocaine.
  • Take a pain reliever. Medicines, such as aspirin, help reduce inflammation. Check with your doctor first to avoid interactions with other medications.
  • Stay hydrated. Choose water or drinks that contain electrolytes.

What are the symptoms of sun poisoning?

“A common misconception with sun poisoning is the term ‘poisoning,’ but there is no poisoning to the body,” said Dr. D’Costa. “Sun poisoning can mimic the symptoms of sunburn at first but eventually escalate to more severe symptoms like pain and blisters.”

Common symptoms of sun poisoning include:

  • Blistering or peeling skin
  • Confusion
  • Dehydration
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Hives or rash
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath

Call your doctor immediately if your symptoms include confusion, dizziness, fever or nausea. 


How do I treat sun poisoning?

“Although mild cases of sun poisoning can be treated at home, it is best to contact your primary care physician once you show symptoms,” said Dr. D’Costa. “If your symptoms are severe, your PCP can advise if you need medical intervention.”

If your symptoms are mild, your PCP will recommend following the same treatment for sunburn. In severe cases of sun poisoning, your doctor may recommend IV fluid, oral steroids, or the application of steroid cream or topical antibiotics.

“Sun poisoning lasts longer than sunburn,” said Dr. D’Costa. “Let your skin heal. Scratching the infected area or popping blisters increases your risk of infection.”


Can I prevent sunburn and sun poisoning?

Yes! Here are some tips to keep in mind.

Apply sunscreen. Use broad-spectrum sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Apply at least 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply at least every two hours. Even on a cloudy day, you can still get sunburn and need to apply sunscreen. 

Talk to your PCP about the right sunscreen for you. They may recommend you to a dermatologist. 

Wear protective clothing, including sunglasses and a broad-brim hat that covers your face and neck. Wear protective outerwear like long-sleeve shirts and rash guard swimwear. The sun can damage unprotected skin in as little as 15 minutes.

Limit sun exposure. Stay out of the sun between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., when ultraviolet rays are strongest. If you go in the water or take a walk during this time, wear sunscreen, use protective gear and minimize the time you are out. Stay under a beach umbrella or find a shaded concession stand when possible. Your risk of sunburn and sun poisoning increases the more you stay exposed to the sun. 

Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day, preferably water and drinks with electrolytes.  

Know your medications. Some medications make skin sensitive to sun exposure.  


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