What Is Sun Poisoning?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Sun poisoning is a form of severe sunburn. Beyond red, inflamed, and painful skin, those with sun poisoning also often exhibit other bodily symptoms that may mimic an allergic reaction. Excessive and unprotected exposure to the sun causes sun poisoning.

This article explains sun poisoning symptoms, causes, treatment, and prevention.

A person wearing a protective sun hat

PhotoAlto/Milena Boniek / Getty Images

Sun Poisoning Symptoms

Sunburn symptoms include redness, warmth, pain, and swelling. Sun poisoning has severe sunburn symptoms, plus others. Sunburn and sun poisoning symptoms usually start within a few hours of excess sun exposure.

Sun poisoning symptoms include:

Sun poisoning symptoms can last for a few days to several weeks. Your healthcare provider diagnoses sun poisoning based on symptoms and by looking at your skin.

Causes and Risk Factors

Sun poisoning is caused by too much exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation. It is most common in warmer climates and times of the year when people are likely to spend more time in the sun.

While anyone can get sun poisoning if they spend too much time in the sun without appropriate cover and sunscreen, certain people are more susceptible to it.


Photosensitivity is an unusual skin reaction to sunlight and a well-documented lupus symptom. Up to 60% of people with this autoimmune disease experience photosensitivity. People with lupus should take extra precautions to stay covered and use sunscreen—even on overcast days.


While sunlight treats some eczema, other types, called photosensitive eczema, are exacerbated by exposure to sunlight. This condition is rare, but it can sometimes occur after having eczema for some time. Therefore, people with eczema should also take extra precautions in the sun.

Polymorphous Light Eruption

Polymorphous light (PML) eruption is a skin disorder in which people can only tolerate very short amounts of exposure to sunlight (usually 30 minutes) before breaking out into a rash. People with PML must be cautious, avoiding sunlight during maximum intensity, which is late morning through early afternoon, and always wearing sunscreen and clothing that covers the skin.

Xeroderma Pigmentosum

Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) is a disease that causes extreme sensitivity to UV light, occurring in about 1 in 1 million people in the United States. As a result, people with XP are more likely to experience severe sunburns and are, therefore, at a higher likelihood of getting skin cancer. Therefore, people with this condition must take extreme precautions when in the sun to prevent skin damage and prolong life.

Certain Medications

Photosensitivity reactions to medications may increase the risk of sun poisoning. These types of drugs include:

If you take any medications, review the side effects carefully and talk to a healthcare provider about precautions you should take in the sun.


The type of treatment you receive for sun poisoning depends on the severity. Some at-home remedies can keep you comfortable, while medical attention may be required to prevent infection or replenish fluids.

Unfortunately, there is no fast way to cure sun poisoning; like sunburn, you will have to wait for your skin to heal and your immune system to calm down. The good news is you can do plenty of things to ease the discomfort as your body heals.

At-home care includes:

  • Drinking fluids
  • Applying cold compresses or aloe vera gel
  • Using cool (not cold) water when bathing
  • Avoiding scented items like lotions, which may irritate tender skin
  • Avoiding the sun
  • Covering sunburned areas when going outside

Medical care may involve:

  • Antibiotics to prevent infection
  • Pain medications
  • Medications to reduce swelling
  • IV fluids for dehydration
  • Steroid creams for burns

In addition, you should avoid alcohol, wear loose clothing, and avoid popping blisters.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you experience symptoms of sun poisoning, it's best to seek medical advice. That is especially true if you experience the following:

  • Severe sunburns covering more than 15% of your body
  • Dehydration
  • Fever over 101 F
  • Extreme pain that lasts longer than 48 hours


Sun poisoning is entirely preventable. You can prevent sun poisoning and sunburn in the following ways:

  • Staying in the shade
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants
  • Wearing a sun hat
  • Wearing sunglasses
  • Wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher
  • Reapplying sunscreen every couple of hours and after swimming

Remember that UV rays can be dangerous even on cloudy days. So use as many prevention strategies as possible any day you are outside, regardless of the weather.


Most of the time, sun poisoning and sunburn heal with comfort measures and time. However, there is an immediate risk of dehydration and shock, which is why medical advice is essential. In addition, your skin can become infected, especially if you scratch or peel the affected skin.

The long-term consequence of sun poisoning is an increased risk of skin cancer. Exposure to UV rays is a significant risk factor for developing melanoma, the most severe skin cancer. Melanoma on the trunk and legs has been linked to frequent sunburns, especially in childhood.


In addition to red, inflamed, painful skin, sun poisoning is a severe sunburn that may include other body-wide symptoms. These symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, headache, fever, and dehydration. Sun poisoning can be serious, so seek medical attention if you experience symptoms. People with lupus, eczema, and certain photosensitive skin conditions are more susceptible to sun poisoning. Some medications can increase the risk, as well. Therefore, implementing safe sun practices, like always wearing sunscreen, staying in the shade, and wearing clothing that covers your skin, is so important.

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sun exposure—sunburn.

  2. American Family Care Health Centers. Sun poisoning: causes, treatment, and when to see a doctor.

  3. University of Pittsburg Medical Center. Sun poisoning dangers: symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

  4. Kim A, Chong BF. Photosensitivity in cutaneous lupus erythematosusPhotodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. 2013;29(1):4-11. doi:10.1111/phpp.12018

  5. University of Michigan Health Lab. Skin's immune 'alarm' may explain light-induced rashes in lupus patients.

  6. National Eczema Society. Sun and eczema.

  7. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Polymorphous light eruption.

  8. Black JO. Xeroderma PigmentosumHead Neck Pathol. 2016;10(2):139-144. doi:10.1007/s12105-016-0707-8

  9. Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Medications and other agents that increase sensitivity to light.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sun safety.

  11. American Cancer Society. Risk factors for melanoma skin cancer.

By Kathi Valeii
As a freelance writer, Kathi has experience writing both reported features and essays for national publications on the topics of healthcare, advocacy, and education. The bulk of her work centers on parenting, education, health, and social justice.