What is Sun Poisoning? Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

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Sun poisoning is a severe form of sunburn that can cause symptoms beyond red, inflamed, and painful skin. It can also cause symptoms that mimic an allergic reaction, such as fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting. Sun poisoning is caused by excessive and unprotected exposure to the sun. This article explains the symptoms, causes, treatment, and prevention of sun poisoning.

Sun poisoning symptoms

Sunburn and sun poisoning are both caused by excessive sun exposure, but sun poisoning is a more severe form of sunburn. Sunburn symptoms typically include redness, warmth, pain, and swelling, while sun poisoning symptoms can also cause fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. Symptoms of both sunburn and sun poisoning usually start within a few hours of sun exposure.

Sun poisoning can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Blistering
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid pulse and breathing
  • Feeling faint
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Dehydration

Sun poisoning symptoms can persist for a few days to several weeks. Your healthcare provider can diagnose sun poisoning based on your symptoms and a physical examination.

Causes and risk factors

Sun poisoning is caused by excessive exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. It is most common in warmer climates and during the summer months, when people are more likely to spend time outdoors. While anyone can get sun poisoning, certain people are more susceptible to it, including:

  • People with fair skin: People with fair skin have less melanin, the pigment that protects the skin from UV rays.
  • People who are taking certain medications: Some medications, such as antibiotics and diuretics, can make the skin more sensitive to UV rays.
  • People with certain medical conditions: People with certain medical conditions, such as lupus and photosensitive skin conditions, are also more susceptible to sun poisoning.


People with lupus are more likely to experience photosensitivity, which is an unusual skin reaction to sunlight. Up to 60% of people with lupus have photosensitivity. This means that their skin can become red, inflamed, and painful after exposure to sunlight. People with lupus should take extra precautions to protect their skin from the sun, such as wearing protective clothing and using sunscreen, even on overcast days.


Sunlight can help treat some types of eczema, but it can also worsen other types, such as photosensitive eczema. Photosensitive eczema is a rare condition that occurs when the skin becomes sensitive to sunlight. This can cause the eczema to flare up, making it more red, itchy, and painful. People with eczema should take extra precautions in the sun, even if they have not experienced photosensitive eczema before. This includes wearing protective clothing, using sunscreen, and avoiding the sun during the hottest hours of the day.

Polymorphous Light Eruption

Polymorphous light eruption (PML) is a skin condition that causes a rash after exposure to sunlight. People with PML can only tolerate very short amounts of sunlight, usually 30 minutes. This means that they must be very cautious when going outside, especially during the hours of maximum sunlight intensity, which is late morning through early afternoon. They should wear sunscreen and protective clothing at all times to protect their skin from the sun.

Xeroderma Pigmentosum

People with Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) have a rare genetic disorder (happens to 1 person in 1 million people in the United States) that makes them extremely sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light. This means that they can get severe sunburns even after very short exposure to the sun. They are also at a much higher risk of developing skin cancer. As a result, people with XP must take extreme precautions to protect themselves from the sun.

Certain medications

Some medications can cause photosensitivity reactions, which can increase the risk of sun poisoning. These medications include:

  • Antihistamines
  • Coal tar
  • Some birth control pills
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Phenothiazines (antipsychotics)
  • Psoralens (used to treat skin conditions)
  • Some antibiotics, such as sulfonamides and tetracyclines
  • Sulfonylureas (diabetes medication)
  • Thiazide diuretics
  • Tricyclic antidepressants

If you take any of these medications, it is important to review the side effects carefully and talk to your healthcare provider about precautions you should take in the sun.


The treatment for sun poisoning depends on its severity. Mild cases can be treated with home remedies for sunburn with over-the-counter pain relievers, cool compresses, and aloe vera gel. More severe cases may require medical attention to prevent infection or dehydration.

There is no quick cure for sun poisoning. It takes time for the skin to heal and the immune system to calm down. However, there are things you can do to ease the discomfort while you wait.

Home remedies for sun poisoning can help relieve symptoms and promote healing. It includes:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Applying cool compresses or aloe vera gel to soothe the skin.
  • Using cool (not cold) water when bathing to avoid further irritation.
  • Avoiding scented items like lotions, which may irritate tender skin.
  • Avoiding the sun until your skin has healed.
  • Covering sunburned areas when going outside to protect them from further sun exposure.

Medical care for sun poisoning includes:

  • Antibiotics to prevent infection.
  • Pain medications to relieve pain.
  • Medications to reduce swelling.
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids to replace fluids lost through sweating and vomiting.
  • Steroid creams to reduce inflammation and pain.

In addition to medical treatment, you should also:

  • Avoid alcohol, as it can dehydrate you further.
  • Wear loose clothing to allow the skin to breathe.
  • Avoid popping blisters, as this can increase the risk of infection.

It is important to seek medical attention if you have severe sun poisoning or if your symptoms do not improve after a few days.

When to seek medical attention

If you experience symptoms of sun poisoning, it is important to seek medical attention, especially if you experience any of the following:

  • Severe sunburns covering more than 15% of your body.
  • Dehydration, which can cause symptoms such as thirst, dry mouth, dizziness, and fatigue.
  • Fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 degrees Celsius).
  • Extreme pain that lasts longer than 48 hours.


Sun poisoning is entirely preventable. You can prevent sun poisoning and sunburn by taking the following precautions:

  • Stay in the shade as much as possible.
  • Cover up with long sleeves and pants when you are in the sun.
  • Wear a sun hat to protect your face and neck from the sun.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun.
  • Apply sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher to all exposed skin.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or more often if you are sweating or swimming.
  • It is important to remember that UV rays can be dangerous even on cloudy days. So it is important to use as many of these prevention strategies as possible any day you are outside, regardless of the weather.


Sun poisoning and sunburn typically heal with time and comfort measures. However, there is an immediate risk of dehydration and shock, so it is important to seek medical attention. Additionally, your skin may become infected if you scratch or peel the affected skin.

In the long term, sun poisoning can increase your risk of skin cancer. Exposure to UV rays is a significant risk factor for developing melanoma, the most severe type of skin cancer. Melanoma on the trunk and legs has been linked to frequent sunburns, especially in childhood.


Sun poisoning is a severe sunburn that can cause a variety of symptoms beyond just red, inflamed, and painful skin. These symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, headache, fever, and dehydration. Sun poisoning can be serious, so it is important to seek medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms.

People with certain medical conditions, such as lupus, eczema, and photosensitive skin conditions, are more susceptible to sun poisoning. Some medications can also increase the risk of sun poisoning. Therefore, it is important to implement safe sun practices, such as:

  • Always wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher
  • Staying in the shade
  • Covering your skin with clothing

In addition to these general sun safety tips, people who are at risk of sun poisoning may also want to consider:

  • Avoiding tanning beds
  • Talking to their doctor about medication that may increase their risk of sun poisoning
  • Being aware of their skin’s reaction to the sun and taking breaks from sun exposure if they start to feel uncomfortable

By following these safe sun practices, you can help protect yourself from sun poisoning and its serious consequences.

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