A bad sunburn is concerning on a few different levels: It can lead to redness and blisters, cellular damage that causes early signs of aging, and an increased risk of sun cancer. If it’s a bad enough, it can also lead to sun poisoning, which poses its own set of dangers.
You might be surprised to know that sun poisoning isn’t a term that board-certified dermatologists use because it isn’t an official condition. That said, we of course understand that it refers to a severe sunburn, one that’s usually accompanied by systemic symptoms like chills.
A case of sun poisoning can feel much like the flu; beyond coping with a painful burn, you might also have a fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, exhaustion, and even fainting spells. These symptoms can last anywhere from a few hours to days, depending on the severity of the sun poisoning.
With a sunburn, the affected skin becomes inflamed. But particularly bad ones can also trigger inflammation throughout your body.
How to identify sun poisoning
The first sign that you may have sun poisoning may be what looks like the worst sunburn you’ve ever had. And that’s because it’s actually a rash. A sun rash can be localized, appearing only on the areas of the body that were the most severely burned, or it can be widespread.
It also looks and feels different from your average sunburn. A sun rash is typically itchy, and it can develop small blisters. The blistering should be checked out by your dermatologist to avoid infection and long-term scarring.
There’s more: Five blistering sunburns can increase your risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 80%.
If you’re tired of hearing about the need to wear sunscreen 365 days a year, read the previous sentence one more time because the best way to treat serious sun poisoning is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
That means slathering on a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher about 15 minutes before you head outside and then reapplying it every couple of hours, or right after swimming and towel-drying.
How to treat sun poisoning
If you suspect you have sun poisoning, the first thing to do is get out of the sun. And not just for an hour or so. You should avoid the sun for at least the next several days. Immediately after going inside, cool your skin with a cool compress or a cool bath.
From there, take an anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen, and try to stay well-hydrated. It’ll help reduce the systemic inflammation and speed up the healing of your sunburn.
If you already have a fever, chills, or you’re vomiting, call your dermatologist right away. Sun poisoning can lead to severe dehydration that requires hospitalization. The vast majority of cases, though, can be treated at home with the proper measures and patience.