Here, the sun poisoning symptoms to look out for and how to treat it.

By Melanie Rud
June 27, 2019
Getty Images/ cihatatceken

As much as we tout the importance of practicing safe sun, we get it, sunburns happen. And while they're NEVER a good thing for your skin (your risk for developing melanoma doubles if you've experienced five or more sunburns, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation) there's no denying that they can range from mild to more severe.

Enter sun poisoning, which, while not a technical medical diagnosis, is a larger umbrella term that encompasses everything from super extreme sunburns to sun-induced rashes. Ahead, top derms weigh in on what you need to know about sun poisoning, how to recognize the symptoms of sun poisoning, and how to treat it.

Sun Poisoning Symptoms

Sun poisoning can actually make you feel sick.

"If a sunburn has left you with systemic symptoms—fever, nausea, fatigue—this can be an indication of sun poisoning," explains Chicago dermatologist Jordan Carqueville, M.D. Basically, if your sunburn symptoms are more than just skin-deep, you may have crossed over from sunburn to sun poisoning. (Oh, and on the skin note, large areas of blistering are another telltale sign. And to the previous point about skin cancer, it's also worth noting that even one of these types of blistering sunburns during childhood or adolescence nearly doubles your chance of developing melanoma, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.)

When you get sunburned, your body triggers an immune response to try and heal the skin, which is why you can end up feeling almost like you have the flu, adds New York City dermatologist Rita Linkner, M.D., of Spring Street Dermatology.

Sun poisoning can also show up as a rash.

Some people are just extremely sensitive to sun exposure and develop a rash; the technical term for this is polymorphous light eruption, explains Dr. Linkner. (While it's more common in lighter skin types, it can happen to anyone.) This manifests as bumpy red patches (that can also be itchy) that can show up anywhere on the body, though it usually happens in the early part of the summer after your skin is first exposed to sunlight, she adds.

"Many people confuse this kind of rash with a sunscreen allergy, but if you haven't used a new product, and you experience this year after year, it may simply be the sun that your skin is reacting to," says Dr. Linkner. While it's still best to attempt to limit your sun exposure as much as possible, this is less cause for alarm than a super extreme sunburn, since it's more so that your skin is 'adjusting' the sun again. (Related: 5 Weird Side Effects of Too Much Sun)

How to Treat Sun Poisoning

In the case of sun poisoning, the best offense is a good defense. In other words, protect your skin from the sun. (More on that in a minute.) But if the sun has already gotten the best for you, there are a few things you can do. If you're feeling sick, first and foremost, get yourself inside, stat (hopefully that goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway, just in case).

Cooling and soothing are the name of the game for treating your skin—think chilled aloe vera gel or even an over-the-counter steroid to help bring down some of the inflammation, says Dr. Carqueville. Dr. Linkner advises popping a baby aspirin, too; other pain-killers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help, but aspirin specifically turns off prostaglandins, the compounds responsible for making you feel sick, she says. Plus, it will alleviate some of the pain and can even tamp down some of the redness in your skin.

Above all, hydrate, both internally and externally. "A sunburn wreaks havoc on the skin barrier, allowing all of the moisture to escape, so you want to both use moisturizer and drink plenty of water," says Dr. Carqueville. (Related: The Best Moisturizers with SPF 30 or Higher)

If rashes are cropping up on your body, Dr. Linkner says the best thing to do is to pay a visit to your dermatologist. Not only will he or she be able to correctly diagnose you (i.e. make sure those bumps are in fact being caused by the sun and not something else), but the best fix for this is a prescription-strength cortisone cream. (Related: What's Causing Your Itchy Skin?)

All of this being said, if you have widespread blistering all over your body or are feeling seriously ill, get yourself to a doctor, ASAP.

How to Prevent Sun Poisoning 

Here's a recap of some of the best sun-safe behaviors that will help you avoid all of the above. One, whenever possible, stay out of the sun during peak hours, namely 10 am to 4 pm. If you do have to go outdoors, hang in the shade, and protect yourself with a wide-brim hat, sunnies, and SPF clothing. (Related: How to Protect Your Skin From the Sun—Besides Wearing Sunscreen.)

And finally, the star of the show, SUNSCREEN. While daily application 365 days a year is paramount, now's the time to be extra diligent about your 'screen strategies; UVB rays, those responsible for burning your skin, are strongest during the summer. Opt for a broad-spectrum formula with at least an SPF 30 and reapply every two hours, especially when you're outdoors. (Related: The Best Face and Body Sunscreens for 2019)

A few of our current sunscreen favorites:

  • Naturally Serious Mineral Sun Defense Moisturizer-Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30, Buy It, $34
  • C'est Moi Gentle Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30, Buy It, $15
  • Alastin HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36, Buy It, $55
  • Beautycounter Countersun Tinted Mineral Sunscreen Mist SPF 30, Buy It, $39
  • Bare Republic Mineral Spray Vanilla Coconut SPF 50, Buy It, $14
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