Group of teens in pool

Sunburn vs. Sun Poisoning: What's the Difference?

Sunny summer days call for plenty of time outdoors, but plenty of people ignore the call for sunscreen. If your body is exposed to too much sunlight, it can cause damage to your skin that can last a lifetime. Here are some tips from Community Health Network pediatrician Sheryl King, MD, to help you learn the difference between sunburns and the more serious sun poisoning.

Know the signs of sunburn and sun poisoning

Everyone has experienced sunburn at some point in their life. Whether from a day on the beach or just from walking around town, sunburns are exceptionally common. Your skin becomes red, it feels itchy or tender, and the skin may be warm to the touch. Most symptoms will fade within a couple days. But sun poisoning is not so simple.

“Compared to a sunburn, sun poisoning is a more serious medical condition,” explains Dr. King. It results from prolonged exposure to direct sunlight, and may first appear as a common sunburn. However, symptoms like blisters, “sun rash” or even fevers, chills and nausea can develop throughout the day.

Treat sunburn and sun poisoning

If you have a sunburn or sun poisoning, the first step is to remove yourself from the sun to prevent further damage. Dr. King cautions, “If you’re feeling dehydrated, especially in cases of sun poisoning, you should rehydrate with water or other drinks containing electrolytes.”

Apply compression to the affected skin with a cool towel, and apply aloe vera to relieve itching. If you have blisters or a rash, resist the urge to aggravate them by scratching. Take ibuprofen if you’re experiencing pain, and most importantly, stay out of the sun while symptoms last.

Know your risk for sunburn and sun poisoning

“If you have pale skin, you really owe it to yourself to apply sunscreen before you go out in the sun,” Dr. King says. Melanin is a pigment that is responsible for the color of our skin, but it is also responsible for protecting our bodies against UV rays. Fair-skinned people have less melanin than those with darker skin, and are thus more susceptible to burns.

Melanin also dictates eye color. If you have green or blue eyes, you may be more sensitive to light than people with darker eyes. It’s always important to wear sunglasses to protect your retinas against direct sunlight.

Sunscreen is the key to staying safe this summer. Learn 3 things you may have wrong about sunblock, and if you’re experiencing pain from a sun-related condition, schedule an appointment with your family doctor.