Medically reviewed by: Ted Schiff, MD
A regular sunburn is uncomfortable enough, but a severe sunburn, aka sun poisoning, can leave you feeling more than scorched. You may find yourself with intense pain, plus a fever and chills, along with nausea, dizziness and a headache. Some people also develop a sun poisoning rash. When it comes to sun poisoning vs. sunburn, these symptoms are the difference.
If you have sun poisoning, also called sun sickness, you haven’t been “poisoned” by the sun, although it might feel that way. Rather, sun poisoning is caused by severe dehydration from the burn. In some cases it requires medical treatment to ease the pain, prevent infection and counter dehydration.
Sun poisoning symptoms
In addition to a bad sunburn, which may blister, symptoms and signs of sun poisoning may include any of the following:
- Skin swelling
In addition, sun-poisoned lips may blister.
Who gets sun poisoning?
Anyone who experiences prolonged sun exposure, especially without adequate sun protection, can develop sun poisoning. The risk is higher if your sun exposure happens at high altitude or near the equator.
Certain factors make some people more vulnerable to sun poisoning, including these:
- Having fair skin
- Having a personal or family history of skin cancer
- Taking medications that increase sun sensitivity, such as retinoids, certain antibiotics, various acne medications, some antifungal medicines and certain oral contraceptives
- Using skincare products that contain alpha hydroxy acids
- Taking supplements such as St. John’s wort and vitamin B6
Bad sunburns, which can lead to sun poisoning, can happen any time you spend too much time in the sun, but they’re especially likely if you spend that time on the beach, on the water or on snow, since water, sand and snow all reflect the sun’s rays.
Sun poisoning treatment
How to treat sun poisoning depends on its severity. It’s a good idea to call your dermatologist if you have any of the signs or symptoms listed above. Your dermatologist can prescribe medication to ease your symptoms and, if necessary, prevent infection. A provider might suggest taking over-the-counter pain medicine such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Tylenol), but don’t take these on your own. They should be avoided by people who have certain medical conditions or take certain medications.
More severe cases of sun poisoning may require hospitalization for intravenous (IV) fluids and treatment in a burn unit. When in doubt, err on the side of going to an urgent care center or ER for evaluation.
Less severe cases of sun poisoning can be treated at home with cool compresses and showers, aloe vera gel and over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream or ointment. Be sure to keep yourself well hydrated. Most people need between half an ounce and one ounce of water per day for every pound they weigh. If you weigh 150 pounds, that would be 75 to 150 ounces of water. (For reference, a gallon is 128 ounces.) Adding drinks that contain electrolytes on top of your water consumption can help you recover from dehydration faster.
Avoid alcohol while you’re recovering, since it can worsen dehydration. And of course, stay out of the sun until you’re feeling better.
Hard as it may be, resist the urge to scratch the rash or pop sun poisoning blisters, which can increase the risk of infection. Contact your provider right away if you have symptoms of infection, which include fever and chills, skin that’s warm to the touch, significant or worsening redness, red streaks, swelling and pus oozing from the skin.
How long does sun poisoning last?
It can take anywhere from two or three days to several weeks to recover from sun poisoning, depending on its severity.
To spare yourself another case of sun sickness, take these preventive measures:
- Avoid prolonged sun exposure and seek shade whenever possible.
- Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure. Reapply at least every two hours and immediately after you swim or sweat.
- Wear sun-protective clothing including a wide-brimmed hat. Don’t forget sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV-related damage.
- If possible, avoid being in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.
Written by: Jessica Brown, a health and science writer/editor based in Nanuet, New York. She has written for Prevention magazine, jnj.com, BCRF.org, and many other outlets.