Symptoms and Signs of Sunburn (Sun Poisoning)

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 8/30/2021

Doctor's Notes on Sunburn (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.

What Is the Treatment for Sunburn (Sun Poisoning)?

Most treatments used to treat sunburn are only used to treat symptoms.

Medications used to treat sunburn include:

Home remedies to treat sunburn symptoms include:

  • Preventing sunburn
    • Do not spend too much time in the sun, especially in direct sunlight in the middle of the day
    • Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 50
    • Wear protective clothing such as a long-sleeved shirt, a hat with a large brim 
    • Drink water to stay hydrated when spending time in the sun
  • Apply dampened cool cloths or cold compresses to reduce the heat and lessen the pain
  • Soak in a bathtub of tepid, plain, soap-free water (soap can irritate the burn)
    • Gently pat the skin dry afterward - do not rub it
    • Apply a soothing skin cream or lotion

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