If you get a really nasty sunburn that blisters, peels, and makes your whole body ache, sometimes just calling it a regular burn isn’t enough. So, you might decide to say that you have “sun poisoning.” Sorry to burst your bubble, but you might just have a bad sunburn, after all.
Although people often use the terms interchangeably, sun poisoning and severe sunburn are actually very different skin conditions, says Shari Lipner, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Sunburn is redness and inflammation of the skin after too much sun exposure, and it can happen to anyone,” Dr. Lipner says. “However, sun poisoning is a type of rash that only some people get, due to an abnormal immune reaction to the sun.” So, how can you tell which one you have?
When a person gets sunburned, their skin appears red and inflamed, Dr. Lipner says. “In severe cases, it blisters and even sheds.” Sun poisoning looks entirely different, and usually causes small, itchy bumps on the skin, she says. Both sunburns and sun poisoning happen after you’ve been exposed to sunlight, but sun poisoning can show up after just a few minutes in the sun, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Even if you do spend a ton of time in the sun, that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to get sun poisoning, although you might get a bad sunburn. Really, sun poisoning is a type of sun allergy, and the medical term is photodermatitis or polymorphic light eruption, Dr. Lipner says. Around 10 to 20% of the population may have a sun allergy, and can get sun poisoning, she says. “It can occur in all skin types, but is more common in lighter skin types,” she says. People with sun allergies usually experience a reaction when they’re in the sun for prolonged periods, or when their immune system is weakened, but not necessarily every time they’re exposed to the sun.
Sun allergies are also more common in women and usually begin around 30 years old, she says. Occasionally, sun allergies can run in families, but some people get sun poisoning because they’re taking certain medications, such as antibiotics, or because they’ve come in contact with certain plants or weeds, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Although sunburn and sun poisoning both sound pretty terrible, one is not necessarily worse than the other, Dr. Lipner says. “Sometimes, sunburns can be more severe than sun poisoning, but the reverse can happen as well,” she says. Despite the name, you’re not actually “poisoned” when you get sun poisoning, and it’s generally very treatable.
Usually dermatologists will tell you to stay out of the sun, and use proper sun protection to prevent a reaction, Dr. Lipner says. Or they might prescribe OTC hydrocortisone to help ease the pain, she says. As long as you stay out of the sun, you can expect the sun poisoning to go away in one to two weeks, she says.
If you think you have sun poisoning, and not just a really bad sunburn, it’s really important to see a dermatologist so they can diagnose you, because “other skin conditions can look similar,” Dr. Lipner says. And Dr. Lipner says it still bears repeating: “It is best to stay out of the sun to avoid getting it in the first place.”