At some point, most people will get a sunburn—a telltale redness that stings and ultimately peels the skin. But much more rarely, some people can get what's called sun poisoning.
Both types of skin damage can put you at risk for health problems, but they can present in different ways. That's why it's important to understand the basics of sun poisoning vs. sunburn so that you know what to watch for, when to see a doctor, and how to prevent future problems.
What Is Sun Poisoning?
As a type of sun allergy, sun poisoning is a term experts use to describe a severe reaction to ultraviolet (UV) rays, like those that come from the sun or tanning beds and cause sunburn. But unlike sunburn—a problem medical experts understand all too well—sun poisoning is somewhat shrouded in mystery.
Outside of the fact that sun poisoning is linked to UV exposure, doctors don't entirely understand the underlying causes of sun poisoning, according to Medical News Today. Some risk factors include having certain conditions like lupus or eczema that can contribute to skin sensitivity, as well as having light skin and eyes. Medications and chemical exposures can also increase risk.
However, according to the Mayo Clinic, not all cases of sun poisoning have a known cause.
What Is Sunburn?
Sunburn happens when the layers of skin become damaged from UV rays. This damage occurs when the body's melanin, also called pigment, can't fully protect the skin because of too much sun or other UV light.
People who spend a lot of time in the sun or tanning beds have an increased risk for sunburn, although other factors like skin tone can also affect your risk.
What Are the Symptoms?
Sunburn looks like it sounds: a red patch of skin that can develop within 24 hours of sunlight exposure, and it sometimes blisters and peels in the days afterward.
Generally, sun poisoning reactions start as sunburn and evolve from there. Seeing as they're considered a sun allergy, they often cause skin itchiness and pain, which can feel even more uncomfortable in addition to the painful burn of a sunburn. Symptoms may also feel like a physical sickness, such as the flu or a cold.
Watch for these signs of sun poisoning:
- Fever and/or chills
- Hives, rash, or itchy bumps on the sunburn
Sometimes, symptoms may present as more worrisome signs like a headache or feeling dizzy, disoriented, or like you might faint. However, these signs may also indicate a serious health problem like a stroke, so always get help in emergencies.
When Should You See a Doctor?
If you think you might have sun poisoning, schedule a visit with your primary care provider. They can help diagnose and suggest treatments if required. While mild cases of sun poisoning may get better on their own, common therapies may include phototherapy or aloe vera lotions to soothe irritated skin.
Avoiding Sunburn vs. Sun Poisoning
The best way to protect yourself against the risks of both sunburn and sun poisoning is to practice sun safety. That means applying and reapplying broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more, wearing protective clothing like hats and long-sleeved garments, and finding midday shade when UV rays are at their strongest.
And, of course, seek the help of a qualified and board-certified Dermatologist. They can help you work through preemptive treatments, such as phototherapy, that may be an option if you experience recurrent sun poisoning.
Don't let fear poison your love of the sun. Work with a provider to make a sun safety plan that works so you can feel your best—day and night.