Doctor's Notes on Sunburn and Sun Poisoning
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.
Sunburn and Sun Poisoning Symptoms
Other common symptoms include:
- 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:
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.
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.
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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.