Sun Poisoning vs. Sunburn - The Important Differences

We can all feel it - the days are getting longer and warmer, the sky is clear, and afternoons are lazy. Summer is almost here. Whether you love summer or suffer from the heat, everyone needs to be cautious when stepping out into the sun. Most people have experienced sunburns and know how unpleasant they can feel. But when do ordinary sunburn symptoms cross a line? Severe sunburn or sun poisoning should be treated immediately to prevent long term consequences. This is how you can recognize, treat, and prevent sun poisoning. 

Symptoms - Sunburn vs. Sun Poisoning

Sun Poisoning & Sunburn, Differences and Treatment sunburned woman
Both sunburn and sun poisoning are caused by overexposure to the sun’s UV rays, no matter how strong or weak they may be. The symptoms of an ordinary sunburn, include pinkness or redness of the skin, the skin feeling warm and sensitive to touch, and later it may start to itch and peel off. Sun poisoning shares those symptoms but in a more severe manner, and it also manifests itself in a flu-like feeling that affects your entire body. Other than the aforementioned symptoms sun poisoning may manifest itself through the following symptoms: 

1. Nausea, chills, and fever

2. Dehydration

3. Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or confused

4. An itchy red rash

5. Pain, tingling, or swelling of the skin

6. Headache

While sunburn is a typical part of sun poisoning, the main difference between the two is that sun poisoning can be a hereditary type of allergy in some people. There are certain pre-existing conditions that can cause your skin to be more sensitive to UV rays, and thus more susceptible to sun poisoning.

Related Article: Vanish Sunburn in 3 Steps

Risk Factors for Sun Poisoning

1. Eczema

Sun Poisoning & Sunburn, Differences and Treatment eczema
While the sun might improve certain types of eczema, that is not always the case. Overheating may lead to excess perspiration, resulting in an eczema flareup, and sunburn can increase the level of inflammation in the skin, making eczema worse. 
When it comes to sun poisoning, some types of eczema can make your skin extremely sensitive and prone to severe sunburns. Some dermatologists consider it an allergic reaction to sunlight. 

2. Lupus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that occurs when your body's immune system attacks your own tissues and organs. Once a healthy person’s skin cells become damaged from exposure to the sun, the immune system clears them away, but when a person is suffering from lupus, the renewal of the cells is significantly slower. When the dead cells linger on, the immune system might mistake them for foreign invaders and trigger inflammatory symptoms such as painful rashes. 

3. Rosacea

Sun Poisoning & Sunburn, Differences and Treatment rosacea
Another condition that makes those who live with it overly sensitive to sunlight is rosacea. Rosacea causes red flush or bumps, mainly on your face. Sunlight is known to cause more blood to flow towards the face, dilating the blood vessels, and thus making the redness more intense and rosacea more severe.

4. Certain Medications

Sun Poisoning & Sunburn, Differences and Treatment medication
Certain medications, like some antibiotics, acne medication, and even ordinary pain killers, might make your skin more sensitive. The reason for that is that some drugs contain compounds which, when activated by UV rays, can damage the cell membranes of skin cells. While research on the matter is being done, it is still not clear what is the cause of that reaction. The types of drugs that might heighten your risk of sun poisoning include:
  • Over the counter antihistamines, such as Benadryl
  • Over the counter anti-inflammatories, such as Advil or Aleve
  • Depression meds such as Elavila and Sinequan
  • Diuretics, also called water pills
  • Common antibiotics


Sun Poisoning & Sunburn, Differences and Treatment
The best cure is prevention - always wear sunscreen when you're outside, especially if you have any of the above-mentioned conditions or take any medications that increase skin sensitivity. There are cases of mild sun poisoning that can be treated at home following these guidelines:
Moisturize your skin frequently - you may use a light moisturizer but aloe vera gel works best to soothe irritation by forming a seal over the surface of your skin. Some doctors recommend cold compresses. You should, however, be careful and avoid touching an open blister.
Stay hydrated - this will speed the healing process because when your body suffers an extensive sunburn, the outermost layer of your skin dries up and a lot of moisture is lost. 

Stay tentative to your body and do seek medical help if:
  • You have widespread, severe burns with blisters or raw skin.
  • There are any signs of infection like swelling or pus.
  • Your symptoms don't get better after a few days.
  • You have signs of dehydration, like severe headaches or fainting.
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