What Everyone Should Know About Sun Poisoning Symptoms

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Cleveland Clinic expert explains the condition and gives tips to avoid and treat it

CLEVELAND: With travel restrictions easing and many people taking vacation days at this time of year, an expert from global health system Cleveland Clinic is advising individuals to take precautions to avoid overexposure to the sun or risking what is commonly referred to as sun poisoning.

Matthew Goldman, MD, a family medicine doctor at Cleveland Clinic, explains that sun poisoning is a nonscientific term to describe a severe sunburn that often mimics a flu bug or allergic reaction.   Depending on the severity, sun poisoning can cause a range of symptoms that may include a severe rash, blistering or peeling skin, nausea, dehydration, dizziness, confusion, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, fainting, and sometimes, it can also cause blisters on the lips.

Explaining the nature of the condition, Dr. Goldman says, “When you have sun poisoning, you are not actually poisoned by ultraviolet (UV) rays. What you’re actually experiencing is intense pain and other reactions from the damage dealt to your skin. If you’re experiencing sickness, nausea, dizzying or general illness, chances are, this is as a result of being severely dehydrated.”

Dr. Goldman stresses that it is important that if individuals experience any of these symptoms, they should drink plenty of water and electrolytes to keep hydrated and clear-minded. In addition, they need to avoid touching the affected areas whenever possible.

Sun poisoning can last weeks, depending on the severity of the burn, says Dr. Goldman. He points out that scratching or picking at the burn could result in a person getting an infection. He adds that if any bleeding or oozing occurs, individuals should see their doctor immediately as it could be a sign of infection.

Treatment for sun poisoning can include cold baths or cold compresses. steroid creams, oral steroids, prescription pain medications, topical antibiotics and IV fluids for dehydration.

According to Dr. Goldman, there are a lot of possible causes for sun poisoning and in some cases, it has no known cause. He explains that sun poisoning is more likely to occur in some people than others, especially if they have fair skin, have a family history of skin cancer or live near the equator. However, sun poisoning does not affect everyone.

Certain pre-existing conditions, medications and/or chemical exposure may predispose someone to sun poisoning. These can include lupus, certain antibiotics, topical medications or contact with certain plants.

Sun poisoning affects different people differently, so doctors tend to focus treatment on a person’s specific symptoms. If individuals have symptoms of sun poisoning, it is important for them to visit their doctor so that he or she can examine them and determine the severity of the problem, as well as the best treatment.

Tips to prevent sun poisoning

To prevent sun poisoning, individuals should take the same precautions that help to avoid sunburn.

  • Use sunscreen. Use broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Apply this 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply at least every two hours.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as long sleeves, sunglasses, gloves and broad-brim hats. Tightly woven fabrics, thick and/or dark-colored clothing are also useful for protection.
  • Avoid peak hours in the summer months. This means staying out of the sun for extended periods of time between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Keep infants younger than 6 months out of direct sunlight.
  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • Be aware of medication side effects.

About Cleveland Clinic

Cleveland Clinic is a nonprofit multispecialty academic medical center that integrates clinical and hospital care with research and education. Located in Cleveland, Ohio, it was founded in 1921 by four renowned physicians with a vision of providing outstanding patient care based upon the principles of cooperation, compassion and innovation. Cleveland Clinic has pioneered many medical breakthroughs, including coronary artery bypass surgery and the first face transplant in the United States. U.S. News & World Report consistently names Cleveland Clinic as one of the nation’s best hospitals in its annual “America’s Best Hospitals” survey. Among Cleveland Clinic’s 72,500 employees worldwide are more than 5,050 salaried physicians and researchers, and 17,800 registered nurses and advanced practice providers, representing 140 medical specialties and subspecialties. Cleveland Clinic is a 6,500-bed health system that includes a 173-acre main campus near downtown Cleveland, 22 hospitals, more than 220 outpatient facilities, including locations in northeast Ohio; southeast Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; Toronto, Canada; Abu Dhabi, UAE; and London, England. In 2021, there were 10.2 million total outpatient visits, 304,000 hospital admissions and observations, and 259,000 surgical cases throughout Cleveland Clinic’s health system. Patients came for treatment from every state and 185 countries.