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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Physician Lim Sock Ling and Dr Angelica L Dumapit on September 7, 2022

Tips To Help Protect Your Skin Against Sun Poisoning

Sun poisoning refers to a very severe sun burn that is often accompanied by dehydration. Complications can be life-threatening. Here's what to do if you think you may have it.

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Sun poisoning can happen fast. In some cases, it occurs within 15 minutes of being in the sun despite not showing symptoms for hours later.

By then, it’s often too late as fever, chills, a headache, and a blistering rash start to develop.

In addition to making your skin age faster, sun damage can lead to serious health effects, such as fainting, dehydration, and an increased risk of skin cancer.

In this guide, we’ll explain what sun poisoning is and how to spot symptoms early. Our physicians also provide tips for recovering quickly and protecting yourself in the future.

What Is Sun Poisoning?

Sun poisoning isn’t a medical term, per se. It refers to a severe sunburn that causes symptoms similar to an allergic reaction.

When you have sun poisoning, you are not technically poisoned by the sun. Instead, you may be experiencing symptoms as a result of severe inflammation and damage to your skin being burned by the sun. You may also experience dehydration symptoms.

Causes and symptoms

Sun poisoning may cause a severe, blistering rash.

The amount of time it takes to be sun poisoned is different for everyone. Individuals with fair skin and light hair may experience symptoms faster. It may also depend on the weather.

On very hot days, sun poisoning may occur within 15 minutes of being in the sun without proper protection. Symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • Severe rash
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sunburn (red, inflamed skin)
  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Being light headed
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting
  • Blisters on your lips or skin
  • Pain and tingling

Health Consequences Of Sun Poisoning

Overexposure to the sun can cause sun spots and skin aging.

When left untreated, sun poisoning can lead to potentially life-threatening complications, such as:

  • Dehydration: It’s important to drink water or electrolytes after you’ve been in the sun. 
  • Infection: This is due to broken blisters or sunburned skin.  
  • Shock 
  • Heat exhaustion 

Long-term effects may include premature aging, wrinkles, sun spots, and skin cancer.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Physician Lim Sock Ling, “Over time, UV damage can take a toll on your skin and its underlying connective tissue. Your skin becomes less elastic and ages faster, and as a result, your skin may develop more wrinkles and lines.” 

“Prolonged and overdose of sun exposure can also increase your risk for skin cancer, the most common type of cancer in the United States. When UV light enters skin cells, it can harm the genetic material (called DNA) within. DNA damage can give rise to tumors or lesions. These may be cancerous or harmless,” Physician Lim continued.”

How To Treat Sun Poisoning

Seek emergency medical treatment immediately if you think you have sun poisoning to prevent potentially life-threatening complications from occurring.

If you are suffering from a mild case of sun poisoning, there are things you can do at home to manage symptoms. Physician Lim recommends cooling herbs, acupuncture, and topical treatments.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture helps to rejuvenate the skin by improving blood circulation. It transports oxygen and nutrients efficiently to the skin and the entire body. It also promotes collagen formation for a better appearance.

For recovery, external modalities should not be administered on areas that are sunburnt. However, your practitioner may administer acupuncture around the infected skin to promote healing by reducing inflammation and swelling.

The following acupuncture points clear Heat from the body and aid in recovery: 

  • Qu Chi (LI11): Clears Heat, cools Blood and removes Dampness from the body.
  • Da Zhui (GV14): The meeting point of all Yang meridians that helps clear exterior pathogens and reduces fever.

Besides acupuncture, scrapping or gua sha may be administered on Da Zhui acupuncture point or along the two sides of the spine on the back.

However, note that you should abstain from acupuncture on areas that are damaged by the sun and if you are suffering from more severe symptoms, such as infection or shock due to sun poisoning.

Herbal remedies

According to Physician Lim, consuming cooling herbs will promote recovery, such as:

  • Burdock root and chrysanthemum: Clears Wind-Heat for mild sunburn
  • Dandelion root: Clears Heat, detoxes, reduces swelling; may complement treatment for more severe sunburn with some blisters
  • Moutan bark and red peony root: Cools Blood and helps recovery from sun poisoning.

Seek medical attention if you experience more serious symptoms from sun poisoning.

The following formulas are prescribed based on the severity of the heat manifestation: 

  • Yin Qiao Powder: This can help with fever, thirst, perspiration due to pathogenic Heat, and the onset of mild sunburn 
  • Bai Hu soup: Helps with the onset of heat stroke presented as rapid breathing, high fever, and being lethargic 
  • Zhu Ye Shi Gao soup: Helps with dehydration 

For more serious cases, it’s best to be admitted to the emergency rather than consuming TCM. 

Topical treatments

Applying aloe to sunburned skin can help soothe pain, redness, and inflammation.

For topical treatment, apply fresh aloe vera gel or boil mint leaves for application.

According to Physician Lim, “Mint leaves are used in TCM for clearing Heat and can also be used as an external lubricant during pediatric tuina for fever management. Zi Yun Gao helps to clear Heat, cool Blood, and reduce swelling to promote recovery of damaged skin.” 

Physician Lim also recommends consuming cooling or nourishing food during this time, such as watermelon, Chinese pear, winter melon, cucumber, white fungus, duck, and more fluids. Sipping ginseng tea is also a good way to stay hydrated and replenish lost fluids.

If your skin has been badly damaged by the sun, consider using a calming relief skincare line with a gentle cleanser and moisturizer to prevent peeling, reduce inflammation, and soothe pain.

Tips For Preventing Sun Poisoning

Physician Lim provided several tips for preventing sun poisoning. She stated, “Wear sunscreen that is “broad-spectrum” and has an SPF of at least 30. Broad-spectrum sunscreen protects against the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. Apply about 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun. Reapply at least every two hours and after you’ve been perspiring or in the water.” 

Additionally, Physician Lim stated, “Limit your sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Note that water, snow, and sand can intensify the sun’s damaging rays. Also, some medications, such as acne medications, antibiotics, antidepressants, diuretics, heart medications, and birth control pills, might make your skin more sensitive to light.” 

Take precautions as symptoms of sunburn and sun poisoning may not be presented immediately. Wear sunglasses, a hat, and protective clothing, especially if you have fair skin.

“Seek medical attention if you experience a sunburn that forms blisters, covers a large area, or is very painful. Other symptoms that require medical care include facial swelling, fever, chills, an upset stomach, headache, confusion, or faintness, or signs of dehydration,” Physician Lim concluded.

References

  1. Cleveland Clinic. 2022. What You Should Know About Sun Poisoning Symptoms.
  2. WebMD. Sun Poisoning.
  3. American Academy Of Dermatology Association. Skin Cancer.

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