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Ouch! Know the Difference Between Sunburn and Sun Poisoning 

Last updated: July 13, 2022

Skin is the body’s largest organ, and while it acts as an insulating shield, it is highly susceptible to damage. Over the summer months when many individuals spend more time outside, the sun’s powerful rays can damage skin. Not only is it necessary to practice sun safety, but it’s also important to know how to identify the difference between sunburn and sun poisoning and when to seek care. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, one in three Americans suffer some degree of sunburn each year. Despite the benefits of time outside — including stress reduction, a surge in natural dopamine and vitamin D absorption — too much time in the sun can lead to overexposure.

Know the difference

Chances are everyone has had sunburn at some point in their life. The painful, reddened areas of skin result from the body’s inflammatory response to excessive UV light exposure. Sunburn can be painful and cause the skin to peel. In extreme cases, it can lead to fever, nausea, and disorientation. 

Some patients may experience blistering, and depending on the severity of the burn, that can be an indicator of sun poisoning. The condition causes a severe, itchy rash with blisters or vesicles that appear within a few hours of overexposure. The symptoms of sun poisoning can linger from a few days to several weeks for the affected areas. 

Treat severe cases of sunburn and instances of sun poisoning right away with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen. Doing so can prevent you from becoming dehydrated and decrease your risk of cell damage, which can lead to developing skin cancer.

Who’s most at risk?

Sunburn can happen to anyone, but some may have a greater chance of getting burned.  

“Young infants and children, older people, and people with chronic medical conditions are most at risk,” says Dr. Abby Smolcich, a pediatrician at ThedaCare Physicians-Darboy. “Some medications also cause sensitivity to the sun and therefore can increase risk of sunburn or poisoning.”  

These may include antibiotics, some antidepressants, antihistamines, and antifungal medications. Information provided with prescriptions should indicate whether a medication causes increased skin sensitivity. When in doubt, speak to a health care professional. By being proactive, individuals can take precautions to prevent the likelihood of sunburn while taking certain medications. 

People with fair skin also can burn easily, even with spending only a short amount of time in the sun. Others may dismiss the need for protection because they desire a tan, but that’s not advisable.  

“A common myth about sunburn is that once burned, your skin becomes tan and then you will not burn again or as easily in the future, which is false. Wear sunscreen any time you will be out in the sun.”

Dr. Abby Smolcich, Pediatrician, ThedaCare Physicians, Darboy 

“A common myth about sunburn is that once burned, your skin becomes tan and then you will not burn again or as easily in the future, which is false,” Dr. Smolcich says.  “Wear sunscreen any time you will be out in the sun.”

Prevention is key

Individuals can safely enjoy the sunshine and avoid sunburn by being mindful and planning ahead.  

“Wear light-colored, long-sleeved clothing, and avoid or limit being out in the sun during the highest exposure time, which is between 1 and 4 p.m.,” Dr. Smolcich says. 

For those visiting the beach, spending time in the water or participating in active outdoor sports, applying sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 is essential.  

“Apply at least 30 minutes prior to being out in sun,” Dr. Smolcich says. “Reapplying every two hours is going to be the most beneficial.” 

Sunscreen is available in both chemical and mineral varieties. Both offer similar levels of protection, and choosing one over the other comes down to individual preference.  

Chemical sunscreens need about 30 minutes to absorb into the skin to be effective, so plan ahead and apply before going outside, Dr. Smolcich says. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, provide a physical barrier to UV rays and are especially good for infants and younger children. 

Preventing sunburn is imperative to maintaining healthy skin.  

“Because of increased education surrounding skin cancer, I think a lot of people are taking proper precautions to help prevent sunburn,” Dr. Smolcich says.

When to seek care 

Patients who have questions or concerns about sunburn can speak with their provider and seek care through a clinic or urgent care site as well as through an eVisit or video visit. 

Most minor sunburns do not require emergency care, but there are a few instances when a patient should seek immediate care for severe burns. 

“Patients should seek care if they have severe sunburn covering a large area of their body, have severe blistering, or open areas of skin,” Dr. Smolcich says. “They should also seek care if they are experiencing any severe headache, fevers, nausea, vomiting, or dehydration.” 

Though sunburn and sun poisoning are most common during the summer, you can still enjoy the beautiful weather with proper precautions. 

Dr. Smolcich offers patients an additional word of caution when it comes to preventing burns. “Be sure to take breaks in the shade and stay hydrated,” she says, “and do not use tanning beds.” 

ThedaCare offers many convenient care options

Tags: Dr. Abby Smolcich sun poisoning sunburn sunscreen

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