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sun poisoning: man with dog paddelboarding

How To Prevent Sun Poisoning—And What To Do If You Get It

The season of sunshine is officially here, which means it’s time for trips to the beach, lake and river swims, family vacations, and all sorts of outdoor adventures. And while spending more time outside is undeniably a good thing, it can also mean an increased risk of sunburn and even sun poisoning, particularly if you go from spending most of your time indoors to romping around in the sun for long hours.

Chances are, you’re probably already pretty well acquainted with sunburns. After all, 30 percent of Americans experience one at least once a year. Sun poisoning, though, is a different beast—and one that’s potentially much more serious. Like a sunburn, though, sun poisoning can happen fast. In fact, the symptoms of sun poisoning can start popping up within a few hours of excessive sun exposure.

Just how bad is sun poisoning, though? And what can you do to prevent it—or at least help your body cope? Here’s everything you need to know before settling into your beach chair for the day.

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Dr. Amy Rothenberg, N.D., is a Massachusetts-based naturopathic doctor. Dr. Tina Alster, M.D., F.A.A.D., is a dermatologist and co-founder of The A-Method.

Intro to Sun Poisoning

A true sunburn is uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful. Take that up a notch and you’ve got sun poisoning. 

“Sun poisoning is an intense reaction of the skin to excessive UV exposure from the sun,” says Dr. Tina Alster, M.D., F.A.A.D., dermatologist and co-founder of The A-Method. It happens when the skin is overexposed to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, leading to health implications beyond a typical sunburn, such as dehydration, infection, and, in extreme cases, heat stroke. 

There’s no set amount of time in the sun that leads to sun poisoning; it varies per person and how strong the UV rays are that day, says Dr. Amy Rothenberg, N.D., an MA-based naturopathic doctor. 

Read More: How To Handle 6 Common Summer Skin Issues

The telltale signs of sun poisoning include blistering, peeling, and additional skin rashes, such as hive-like eruptions that spread, says Rothenberg. You will likely also experience swelling and pain in the affected skin areas as an inflammatory response to the UV radiation. In some cases, blistering and other skin symptoms can last for weeks. 

You might even spike a fever, have chills, feel nauseous, experience changes in mood, like feeling confused, sleepy, or irritated, or notice a dry mouth, intense thirst, fast breathing, a fast heart rate, or low blood pressure, Rothenberg adds. These all indicate dehydration and potential heat stroke, which often go hand-in-hand with sun poisoning.

sun poisoning Can Be Serious

In some cases, sun poisoning may be serious enough to warrant a visit to the doctor. 

Any serious signs of dehydration or heat stroke all warrant seeking medical care, says Rothenberg. Similarly, if your blistering is severe (as in you continue to get new blisters or your blisters cover large swaths of your body), consider seeking medical wound care to support recovery.

In the long run, sun poisoning (like sunburn) can increase your risk of skin dryness, premature skin aging, and even skin cancer.

Who is at the greatest risk for sun poisoning? 

While sun poisoning can happen to anyone, those with fair skin are most at risk. Since children and babies have more sensitive skin than adults, they’re also more susceptible to sun poisoning. 

Additionally, people with certain medical conditions (like lupus) or who take medications that increase sun sensitivity (such as antibiotics and antihistamines) should be extra cautious. Even natural substances like St. John’s Wort, which is often used on scars, can make skin more sensitive to the sun.

Since dehydration is a factor in sun poisoning, it’s worth noting that consuming alcohol (looking at you, beach drinkers) makes you more susceptible.

How to prevent sun poisoning

Obviously, prevention is ideal here. With a few precautions, you can adventure or lay about in the great outdoors as you please without your skin paying the price.

1. Have a protection plan

First and foremost, have sun protection ready if you’re going to be outside for longer periods. That means wearing a hat, popping open a beach umbrella or tent, and wearing mineral-based sunscreen of at least 30 SPF, as recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation. (And reapply that sunscreen as directed!) “Remember, sunscreen is also important on days that are cloudy; the UV rays still come through,” says Rothenberg.

You might even consider avoiding the sun altogether during peak hours, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., suggests the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

2. Stay Hydrated

It’s also crucial to stay hydrated throughout the day—and not with soft drinks or alcoholic beverages. Most experts recommend aiming to drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day (that’s 80 ounces for someone who weighs 160 pounds) as a baseline. Shoot for more than that if you’re in the sun—and especially if you’re doing something active—to maintain healthy hydration. To ensure you’re getting the most out of your H2O, consider adding an electrolyte supplement to it. (Read more about why electrolytes are so essential for hydration here.)

How to support your body through sun poisoning

If you are unlucky enough to have gotten sun poisoning, there are a few steps you can take to manage the discomfort.

1. Keep Hydrating

The first step? Guzzling down water or electrolyte drinks to stay hydrated. This is especially important since sun poisoning puts you at a greater risk for dehydration, making you feel dizzy, lightheaded, and tired.

2. Stick To The Shade

You’ll need to avoid the sun until you’re fully healed, which could take between a few days and a few weeks, depending on the severity of the sun poisoning, says Alster. Otherwise, you may just worsen the damage to your skin.

3. Tend To Your Skin (Carefully)

For some temporary relief, you can also apply cool compresses to the areas of your skin most affected, Rothenberg says. In addition to aloe, you can also keep your skin moisturized with something simple like coconut oil. Avoid anything with a lot of ingredients to prevent reactions while your skin is so sensitive. On that note, put your alcohol-based skincare products like retinol or those with harsh chemicals back on the shelf until you’ve healed to avoid further irritation.

Read More: 8 Natural Ways To Keep Your Skin Healthy This Summer

And, though it may be tempting, avoid picking or scratching at the blisters. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, doing so will only cause more harm, possibly leading to infection or scarring. This all ultimately slows down your healing process. Wearing loose, comfortable clothing can help minimize discomfort, suggests Alster.

Consider taking over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen to alleviate pain, as needed. Natural options, such as arnica montana extract, may also help ease some discomfort.

4. Mind Your Diet

When it comes to your diet, turn to antioxidants to support the skin as it heals. Load up your plate with antioxidant-rich berries, nuts, and leafy greens—and drink plenty of green tea. You might also consider supplementing with antioxidants like vitamin C. “The body is wonderfully capable of healing when given the right ingredients to support the innate processes,” Rothenberg says. 

Otherwise, steer clear of alcohol and other inflammation-boosting foods like fried and processed food, which can slow down your body’s healing process. 

Finally, make sure you’re consuming enough protein. After all, your body’s tissues (skin, included!) are made up of protein, meaning you need high amounts of it to rebuild or replace damaged tissue. Here are a handful of easy ways to up your protein intake.

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