Learn how to tell the difference between sunburn and sun poisoning

Almost everyone, regardless of skin color, has experienced the discomfort of sunburn, says Kevin M. Wong, MD, Westmoreland Family Medicine – UPMC.

Itchy, peeling skin that’s sensitive to touch is never fun during the summer months. Yet it’s often difficult to judge when exactly sun exposure can be serious. How do we tell the difference between sunburn from sun poisoning?

Is It Sunburn or Sun Poisoning?

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between sunburn and sun poisoning. While a sunburn is redness of the skin that will go away after a few days, sun poisoning is a more serious irritation that shows up as hives or blisters. Some people call these hives a “sun rash,” a rash on a sunburn.

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Sunburn Symptoms

Sunburn occurs when you expose your skin to the sun for a length of time, causing irritation and redness. How severe your sunburn is depends on your location, length of exposure, and skin type. Some symptoms of sunburn include:

  • Redness of the skin.
  • Swelling.
  • Itchiness or tenderness.
  • Skin that’s hot or warm to the touch.

A severe sunburn may lead to flu-like symptoms and other symptoms like sun poisoning. However, a severe sunburn does not result in rashes or hives.

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Sun Poisoning Symptoms

Sun poisoning, unlike a sunburn, is your skin’s allergic reaction to excessive amounts of UV rays. It happens when you’ve been out in the sun for long periods of time without proper protection. It often manifests in blisters or a sun rash, although severity depends on length of exposure.

Its symptoms are often additional to – and are more serious than – those of a sunburn. Some of these include:

  • Hives or rash covering a sunburn, also known as a sun rash.
  • Blisters.
  • Dehydration.
  • Headache or dizziness.
  • Fever or chills.
  • Nausea.

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, move to a cool, shaded area out of direct sunlight.

Treatment for Sun Poisoning

Most sunburns and sun poisoning can be treated similarly and at home. Some ways to reduce pain or discomfort:

  • Rehydrate with water or other drinks that contain electrolytes.
  • Soothe the irritated area with a cool (but not cold) compress or aloe vera gel.
  • Avoid scratching your sun rash or popping blisters.
  • Gently exfoliate peeling skin.
  • Avoid additional sun exposure.
  • For more pain relief and to minimize swelling, Dr. Wong recommends ibuprofen or naproxen.

If your symptoms include severe nausea, fever, or dizziness, call a doctor for advice.

Protecting Your Skin from the Sun

The best way to avoid sunburn or sun poisoning is prevention. If you’re planning on being out in the sun for long periods, cover up with long sleeves or a broad-brimmed hat, adds Dr. Wong.

Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least 30 SPF to block any harmful UV rays. When using sunscreen, apply 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure and every two hours afterward.  “Remember to reapply after long exposure or getting wet,” says Dr. Wong. Swimming and sweating also can wash away your skin’s protection.

Last, don’t depend on sunscreen and other protection to block all sun. If you begin to burn or if your skin is red, bumpy, or irritated from exposure, move to a shaded area. Taking good care of your skin can help prevent melanoma and other skin cancers.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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