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Symptoms and Signs of Sunburn (Sun Poisoning)

Doctor's Notes on Sunburn and Sun Poisoning

Too much sun or sun-equivalent exposure (such as a tanning bed) can result in sunburn. Severe sunburn or sun poisoning can be disabling.

The most common symptom of mild sunburn is skin redness and pain or irritation. In severe cases of sunburn (sun poisoning) symptoms include severe skin burning and blistering, massive fluid loss (dehydration), electrolyte imbalance, and in some cases, infection. Other symptoms that accompany sunburn include chills, fever, nausea, vomiting, flu-like symptoms, blistering skin, and skin loss (peeling) about 4 to 7 days after exposure. Severe untreated sunburn can cause shock and even death.

A certain kind of sun poisoning is due to a condition called polymorphous light eruption (PMLE). Symptoms of PMLE are a mild to severe skin rash, usually appearing within 30 minutes to several hours of sun exposure. The rash manifests as itchy, small bumps all over the body that progress to dense clumps of bumps, along with hives.

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019

Sunburn and Sun Poisoning Symptoms

Other common symptoms include:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Flulike symptoms
  • Blistering that may range from a very fine blister that is only found when you begin to "peel" to very large water-filled blisters with red, tender, raw skin underneath. When blisters pop, the skin that covered the blisters will slough off.
  • Skin loss (peeling) about 4 to 7 days after exposure

Some individuals experience a sun rash (sometimes called sun poisoning) due to a condition called polymorphous light eruption (PMLE). About 10% of Americans are affected by PMLE, a reaction that does not appear to be linked to drugs or diseases.

Symptoms of PMLE are a mild to severe skin rash, usually appearing within 30 minutes to several hours of sun exposure. The rash may be itchy and have these characteristics:

  • Small bumps all over the body, predominantly in sun-exposed areas
  • Sun rash progresses to dense clumps of bumps
  • Hives, usually on the arms, lower legs, and chest

Sunburn and Sun Poisoning Causes

  • Mild and uncomplicated cases of sunburn usually result in minor skin redness and pain.
  • Initially, the skin turns red about 2 to 6 hours after exposure and feels irritated. The peak effects are noted at 12 to 24 hours.
  • More severe cases (sun poisoning) are complicated by severe skin burning and blistering, massive fluid loss (dehydration), electrolyte imbalance, and possibly infection.
  • With too much exposure, severe untreated sunburn can cause shock (poor circulation to vital organs) and even death.

Sun-Damaged Skin Pictures of Sun Spots, Wrinkles, Sunburns Slideshow

Sun-Damaged Skin Pictures of Sun Spots, Wrinkles, Sunburns Slideshow

Sunbathing and sun exposure can put you at risk for serious medical problems. Damage to the skin, including abnormal discoloration, wrinkling, or skin cancer, can result from overexposure to the sun.

REFERENCE:

Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

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