THE MOST COMMON summer mistake: skipping out on the all important sunscreen. We get it—those days of hopping the ocean waves, kicking it by the pool with your friends, or an afternoon at the ballpark all provide plenty of distractions that cause you to forget to apply. Missing this crucial step, though, can cause more than just an annoying sunburn—it can cause sun poisoning.
Sun poisoning is essentially a very severe sunburn, says Steven E. Rasmussen, M.D., chief of dermatology at Austin Regional Clinic in Austin, Texas. The name is a bit deceiving, as the sun isn’t exactly “poisoning” you. “When sun poisoning occurs, the injury to the skin due to the sun’s radiation causes intense inflammation in the skin that results in a more generalized inflammatory reaction in the whole body.”
Different skin types are more susceptible to burns and sun poisoning than others. Unlike a bad sunburn, sun poisoning may require immediate medical attention. You may land in your local urgent care or emergency room.
Here’s what you need to know about this condition, including symptoms to watch for, how to treat and prevent sun reactions, and when to seek medical attention.
What Are the Signs of Sun Poisoning?
A typical sunburn usually just results in red, warm, itchy and/or tender skin due to the ultraviolet radiation from the sun, says Dr. Rasmussen.
Sun poisoning, however, can result in large and painful skin blisters, facial swelling, flu-like symptoms (i.e. fever, chills, headache, nausea, and vomiting), light-headedness and dehydration, and severe cases may require individuals to seek medical care. Other symptoms to watch for include tender redness, pain, tingling, swelling, dehydration and lightheadedness.
How Does Sun Poisoning Happen?
“Sun poisoning begins with symptoms that are similar to a sunburn, so unfortunately, it often goes unnoticed which leads to more severe symptoms,” says Dendy E. Engelman, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City,
Who is Most Likely to Experience Sun Poisoning?
According to Dr. Rasmussen, sun poisoning can occur in anyone, but individuals who have very light skin and those who are on certain medications or have medical conditions such as lupus that make them more susceptible to sunburns are at higher risk.
“Additionally, when and where the sun exposure occurs can be [a factor],” he says. “Exposures during peak times of the sun’s radiation (usually 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and high altitude exposure increase the risk.” Other factors such as chemical exposure or contact with certain plants may increase your risk as well.
How Is Sun Poisoning Treated?
Once you realize you’re dealing with a serious sunburn, it’s important to act quickly, Dr. Rasmussen says.
“Immediately seek shade, take a cool (not cold) shower or apply cool compresses,” he says. “Make sure to also hydrate and apply [aloe vera gel] and/or moisturizer, and avoid sun exposure to the affected areas.” You can also take ibuprofen or Tylenol to help with the pain and discomfort he says.
“Aloe also has calming, anti-inflammatory properties,” adds Dr. Engelman. “When applied to the skin, it reduces redness and helps to increase healing time.”
Other home remedies include witch hazel, which has anti-inflammatory and astringent properties that help with itching and irritation, Dr. Engelman says. Mixing oatmeal with olive or coconut oil and applying it to your body before a shower or a bath has soothing attributes to it.
When Should You Seek Medical Care for Sun Poisoning?
Get medical attention if your sunburn causes large and/or painful blisters, facial swelling, noticeable flu-like symptoms, headache, confusion, or faintness, or signs of dehydration, according to Dr. Rasmussen. Don’t feel silly about going to urgent care or the ER – “sunburns account for about 33,000 medical visits every year,” he says.
“If your burn is accompanied by blisters that cover more than 20 percent of your body, you definitely need to see a doctor who will assess the burn and provide the best treatment for you. That may include a cool compress, topical antibiotics to prevent infection, and IV fluids for dehydration,” Dr. Engelman adds.
How Can You Prevent Sun Poisoning?
Just like sunburns, sun poisoning is absolutely preventable. You can prevent sun poisoning similarly to how you’d protect yourself from general sun damage, Dr. Rasmussen says. This means avoiding sun exposure during peak times (so opt for a sunrise run rather than midday in the blazing sun), wearing sun-protective clothing including hats, shirts and pants with plenty of coverage, and a broad-spectrum, waterproof sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or higher, making sure to apply it 30 minutes prior to going outside and reapplying every two hours.
Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Runner’s World, she has contributed health, fitness and wellness content to Women’s Health, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and the Houston Chronicle, among other publications. She is also an 11-time marathoner, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and an avid traveler.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.