Be Sun Savvy: Know the Differences Between Sunburn and Sun Poisoning

July 22, 2019

If you’ve ever gotten a sunburn so severe that your skin starts to blister and you feel like you have the flu, there’s a good chance it wasn’t just sunburn. It’s likely that you were suffering with sun poisoning instead. Causes of sun poisoning vary greatly, and if you’re prone to it, there are simple precautions you can take to avoid further health complications.

Sun poisoning is sometimes brought on by an allergic reaction or sensitivity to excessive sun exposure, explained Amanda Fox, FNP-C, of Jefferson Health Turnersville Primary & Specialty Care. “However, some people are at a much higher risk for sun poisoning, such as those with very fair skin, blonde hair, and freckles, as well as anyone who lives close to the equator.”

Symptoms of sun poisoning tend to be more extreme in comparison to sunburn, where you’ll experience redness, slight pain or irritation, and peeling of the skin.

If you have sun poisoning, it’s common to experience any of the following, depending on severity:

  • hives
  • rashes
  • blistering at the site
  • dehydration
  • headaches
  • fevers
  • dizziness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • symptoms of heat stroke (e.g., muscle weakness, confusion, respiratory distress).

“Prevention is key,” said Fox. “If you develop sun poisoning time and time again, there are long-term risks, specifically, with skin cancer. Your skin can also lose its elasticity and become damaged, wrinkled, and discolored. There’s a possibility for eye damage, and severe enough dehydration can result in kidney damage.”

Tips for avoiding sun poisoning are similar to avoiding sunburn. You just have to be more cautious and aware of any signs of burning. You should also do the following:

  • Wear cover-ups and large-brimmed hats.
  • Apply SPF-30 sunscreen or higher one hour before you go outside, that way it’s already in effect.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, and as soon as you come out of the water (pool or ocean).
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • If you notice any redness start to appear, get into the shade.
  • Check the UV index before going out for the day in order to gauge how much shade and water you might need.

Sun poisoning is usually manageable at home and within the primary care setting. Cold compresses (and milk compresses), aloe, and lotions help relieve pain and heal the skin. Over-the-counter pain relievers are also beneficial. If there’s minimal dehydration, fluid intake should be increased until you start to feel better.

“The need for further medical attention in sun poisoning cases is rare,” continued Fox. “However, if dehydration is severe enough, or if you have heat stroke symptoms, you will need to go to the hospital for treatment. If skin has been damaged to the point that it’s dying, you will need to have the tissue removed.”  

Now that you’re more knowledgeable on the differences between sunburn and sun poisoning, you can truly "beat the heat" and enjoy yourself, all while keeping your skin safe!

To learn more about Primary Care services at Jefferson Health in New Jersey, click HERE, or schedule an appointment by calling 1-844-542-2273.