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Sun Poisoning: Recognizing the Signs, Treating the Symptoms

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When we think of all the life-sustaining benefits of sunlight, it’s hard to imagine that the sun can be poisonous for some of us. Yet more than 10 percent of Americans are sensitive to the sun’s rays and can’t enjoy a bright, clear day without becoming ill.

Many people who suffer from sun poisoning don’t seek medical treatment because their symptoms usually go away within a week or so. However, it’s important to know if you’re sun sensitive so you can properly treat the side effects caused by your sun exposure and avoid them in the future.

Sun poisoning, medically termed polymorphous light eruption, most commonly affects fair-skinned folks who live in northern climates. More women develop sun poisoning than men. You’re at greater risk for the condition if other family members are sun sensitive.

Your skin's varied reaction to the sun

The most common sign of sun poisoning is a proliferation of red bumps or lesions on the skin. These itchy breakouts can occur anywhere from one-half hour to several days after sun exposure. They’re usually confined to parts of the body that aren’t exposed to the sun in the winter months, such as the arms, legs, and chest. Breakouts rarely occur on the face.

If you’re suffering from polymorphous light eruption, you might also experience

  • Blisters

  • Burning

  • Chills

  • Headache

  • Nausea

  • Swelling

Treatments for sun-sensitivity symptoms

Polymorphous light eruption often strikes after that first, skin-baring late-spring or early-summer outing. Even though most people get over sun poisoning quickly, the days spent healing can be itchy and even painful. Luckily, most symptoms can be eased with treatments you probably already have in your medicine cabinet.

  • Anti-inflammatory medication: To ease your pain and swelling, take aspirin or ibuprofen.

  • Anti-itch cream: Gently apply a hydrocortisone cream or lotion containing at least one percent hydrocortisone to your rash.

  • Cold compresses and cool baths: Put a cold, damp towel on any affected areas or soak in a tub of cool water to soothe your inflamed skin.

  • Sunscreen: Use sunscreen and protective clothing whenever you’re not inside. Going outside without shielding your skin from the sun’s rays will only worsen your condition.

If you’ve developed blisters, leave them alone. Popping them will raise your risk for developing an infection and slow down the healing process. Loosely cover them with gauze if you need to curb your urge to pick.

Call your doctor if careful home treatment and a bit of time don’t eliminate your symptoms. Also contact your doctor if your rash covers a large part of your body or if you’re in a lot of pain or running a fever.

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