News Health/Medical How to Treat Sun Poisoning: Expert Tips and Prevention
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How to Treat Sun Poisoning: Expert Tips and Prevention

By Kathleen Felton

May 26, 2024

Photo: Lucas Ottone/Stocksy

Chances are, you know sunburn when you see it (or just as likely, feel it). Skin that's soaked up too much of the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays without protection can become red, painful, and inflamed. And while sunburn is common—research suggests as many as a third of U.S. adults experience at least one a year—it's still serious. Having five or more sunburns in your life more than doubles your melanoma risk, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Sun Poisoning vs. Sunburn

Though it isn't an *official* medical diagnosis, most experts recognize sun poisoning as an extreme case of sunburn. "Sun poisoning is a very severe sunburn caused by excessive sun exposure causing painful, red skin that blisters and sloughs off," says Dr. Maya Thosani, a double-board certified dermatologist. If you have sun poisoning, your body hasn't actually been poisoned by the sun—rather, you're experiencing an inflammatory response to UV exposure, and you may also be dehydrated.

Initially, a case of sun poisoning looks a lot like a "regular" sunburn. But after a few hours, other symptoms can develop:

  • Sunburn: Skin looks red and swollen. It may feel itchy and warm to the touch, and after some time, the burn may develop small, fluid-filled blisters.
  • Sun poisoning: Skin is very red and painful, and can blister or peel. You might experience fever and chills, dehydration, joint or muscle pain, nausea and vomiting, headaches, dizziness, or fainting. Some people with sun poisoning also develop blisters on their lips.

Treatment

Sun poisoning can be incredibly painful. Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help reduce pain and inflammation. Avoid further sun exposure. It may seem obvious, but this one is critical: If you have sun poisoning, additional UV exposure will only exacerbate the damage. Stay hydrated. Sun poisoning often goes hand in hand with dehydration, so drink plenty of water to help replace lost electrolytes.

Prevention

To prevent sun poisoning, follow these expert-backed tips:

  • Wear sunscreen with a high SPF and reapply every two hours.
  • Seek shade during peak sun hours (usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.).
  • Wear protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

When to See a Doctor

If you experience severe symptoms of sun poisoning, such as extreme pain, blistering, or dehydration, seek medical attention promptly.

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