Parkridge Medical Group
July 10, 2015

The term “sun poisoning” can take on different meanings—but it does not indicate that anyone has actually been poisoned.

Most people use the term to refer to a severe sunburn—one whose symptoms can include severe pain, nausea, confusion, blistering and headache. When a burn is this severe, you should seek medical attention.

Specific Sun Reactions

Another condition sometimes referred to as sun poisoning is photodermatitis, the scientific name for any abnormal reaction to sunlight. In many cases, photodermatitis symptoms are identical to those of sunburn, but certain forms can cause additional, rash-like symptoms.

About 10 percent of Americans suffer from polymorphous light eruption (PMLE), a form of photodermatitis that typically takes the form of rashy, blistered or scaly skin following exposure to sunlight. Treatments include steroid creams, pills and ointments. Repeated exposure often reduces patients’ light sensitivity, so controlled exposure to UV light is another form of treatment.

In rare cases, photodermatitis can take the form of sun hives, or solar urticaria. In patients with this condition, exposure to sunlight prompts the immune system to produce histamine, often causing hives and sometimes swelling. Treatment options include antihistamines and controlled UV exposure.

Prevention Always Beats Treatment

The best way to prevent sun poisoning, no matter which condition the term refers to, is to reduce exposure to direct sunlight. One way to do this is to wear clothing that covers the skin, including a hat. When spending extended periods of time in the sun, cover exposed skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) between 30 and 50, and reapply it every two hours.

If you or a loved one experiences a severe or unusual reaction to sunlight, a primary care physician can help bring relief. To find a primary care physician in our area, visit