How to Know if You Have Sun Poisoning or Just a Bad Burn

sun poisoning


Sunshine, in theory, is generally always welcome. Feeling the warmth on your skin and the rays bouncing off your face can be an instant mood booster. The sun gives the body a valuable vitamin—vitamin D—which is proven to help with depression and is essential for maintaining strong, healthy bones. However, we know all too well the damaging effects of the sun on our skin—and too much sun at once could even lead to sun poisoning, an entirely other piece of the pie to consider. To get the details on how our bodies respond to too much sunlight, we reached out to two dermatologists for their expertise on how to prevent sun poisoning and care for your skin if you find yourself with a severe burn.

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Julie Karen is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in Mohs micrographic surgery, laser surgery, skin cancer, and leg veins.
  • Dr. Alicia Barba is a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist who specializes in cosmetic dermatology and skin treatments.

What Is Sun Poisoning?

We know the consequences of too much fun in the sun: red, tingly, itchy skin that eventually peels and flakes off. So then would it be fair to assume that sun poisoning is essentially a really bad burn? The simple answer is yes. "Sun poisoning refers to a severe sunburn, often with other local/systemic symptoms that result from prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation," says Julie Karen of Complete Skin MD.

However, Karen says you only need 15 minutes of intense sun exposure to find yourself nursing a severe burn. For many, the symptoms of sunburn don't show up until hours later. However, those with fair skin may see their symptoms show sooner. Karen says those with fair skin types are more susceptible to severe sunburn, especially when in locations closer to the equator, during midday sun exposure, and when the UV index is higher.

How Can You Prevent Sun Poisoning?

Save for avoiding the sun altogether, preventing sunburn and sun poisoning is relatively simple if you do two things: apply sunscreen and wear sun-protective clothing. "A broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, reapplied every two hours, can absolutely prevent [sun poisoning]," says Dr. Alicia Barba, Miami-based board-certified dermatologist.

As for the protective clothing, she recommends a sun shirt and a wide-brimmed hat to protect sensitive areas like the ears, nose, neck, and lips during a long day at the beach. For those who are known for falling asleep on the beach (or enjoy a planned breezy nap), be sure your skin is protected with sunscreen (including your back) and that you're under an umbrella. "Some of the severe sunburns I see are from people who fell asleep while in the sun, especially when under the influence of alcohol," Barba tells us.

She also notes that staying hydrated while you're outdoors is key as the heat can easily make you lose water while you sweat.

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When caring for yourself or someone with sun poisoning, "Prompt recognition is key," says Karen. She continues, "It is critical to remove yourself from the sun and the heat." If your skin has severe redness and blisters and you're experiencing a fever, chills, and weakness, Barba says these are signs of sun poisoning and dehydration. Even if you aren't feeling these extreme symptoms, but have a sunburn, she emphasizes that it should not be taken lightly and treated as soon as possible.

If you do have a fever or are experiencing severe symptoms of dehydration (dizziness, confusion), Karen says it's best to get in touch with a physician. "Also, if blistering occurs if the sunburn is extensive and painful, medical attention is indicated. Prescription topical (or sometimes even oral) steroids can help."

Treatment Methods

"The best way to treat a severe sunburn is to cool down the skin immediately [by applying] cold compresses," says Barba. "A ziplock filled with ice works well, as does a cool soothing gel like aloe vera (keep in the refrigerator)." She recommends applying the cool compresses in three- to five-minute increments, giving your skin 10-15 minutes rest to prevent developing an ice burn. Rehydrating and taking 200 mg ibuprofen (if you're not allergic) is also advised.  

Taking pain relievers orally isn't the only way to lessen inflammation. Karen says crushing a baby aspirin and spreading it as a paste on the skin can also offer some local anti-inflammatory results.

When it's time to shower, Barba recommends using a gentle cleanser like the Dove White Beauty Bar (with cool water!). "The brand's signature 1⁄4 moisturizing cream replenishes nutrients, won't strip away skin's moisture like ordinary soap can, and can be used without an implement."

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For post-shower topical application, once the skin is cool, Barba recommends over-the-counter hydrocortisone 1% cream if the skin is very inflamed. "If blistering develops, then treating the blisters with an emollient petrolatum ointment is key." Karen also has a topical recommendation: "My favorite product for healing skin from sunburn or other traumatic burns once the risk of heat entrapment during the acute phase is down is Doctor Rogers Restore. [It is an] all-natural product made of glycerin and castor bean oil and abets healing remarkably."

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Recovery Time

You may feel better a couple of days after coming down with sun poisoning; however, skin damage can be long-lasting. "While some of the more serious systemic symptoms (headache, dizziness, nausea, fever, etc.) may sometimes resolve within hours to a day or two, the damage to the skin is far longer-lasting," Karen tells us. If you're on vacation, you may feel the temptation to get back out in the sun when you find yourself feeling better, but Karen says that’s a big no-no. "It is critical to minimize additional exposure to the sun and extreme heat while you are recovering from sun poisoning," she urges.

Barba says sun poisoning symptoms can resolve in 24-48 hours with hydration, cooling of the skin, and good topical care for the burn. "However, if the sunburn is widespread, covering 70-80% of your body, the healing process may take 7-10 days for the burned skin to shed and replenish itself."

Other Possible Complications

"Sun poisoning that leads to severe dehydration can lead to a more serious illness," says Barba, adding that a severe sunburn can also cause scarring, and can increase your chances of getting skin cancer in the future.

"Following severe sunburn, the skin's barrier is impaired, increasing its susceptibility to further damage," says Karen. "Furthermore, the skin's ability to regulate temperature is impaired, and so avoiding excessive heat is important as well." For this reason, she says, keeping the skin moist as it heals can minimize pigmentary disturbance, discoloration, scarring, and increase recovery speed.

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