What everyone needs to know about sun poisoning

“Sun poisoning is a severe sunburn,” says Steven E. Rasmussen, MD, FAAD, Dermatology at ARC Southwest in this recent article in Men’s Health. “Despite the name, it does not mean the sun is actually causing a true ‘poisoning,’” Dr. Rasmussen explains. “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.”

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:

  • skin blisters
  • facial swelling
  • flu-like symptoms (i.e., fever, chills, headache, nausea, and vomiting)
  • light-headedness
  • tender redness
  • pain
  • tingling
  • swelling

Who is most susceptible?

Dr. Rasmussen says that 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 the sun 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.”

What to do

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 adds. “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 advises.

When to seek medical care

Dr. Rasmussen advises seeking medical attention if your sunburn causes:

  • large and/or painful blisters
  • facial swelling
  • noticeable flu-like symptoms
  • headache
  • confusion, or faintness
  • signs of dehydration


Just like sunburns, sun poisoning is preventable. You can prevent sun poisoning similarly to how you’d protect yourself from general sun damage, Dr. Rasmussen says. This means:

  • avoid sun exposure during peak times
  • wear sun-protective clothing including hats, shirts, and pants
  • use a broad-spectrum, waterproof sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or higher; apply it 30 minutes prior to going outside and reapply every two hours

Make an appointment today

Dr. Rasmussen is currently accepting new patients. Make an appointment online or in your MyChart account or by calling ARC Southwest at 512-282-8967.

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