By now, we're all (hopefully) aware of the dangers of a bad sunburn — forgetting your SPF can lead to redness and blisters, cellular damage that causes early signs of aging, and of course, a heightened risk of skin cancer. It can also lead to sun poisoning. But what exactly is sun poisoning? You've probably heard the term thrown around a lot (especially during the summer months), so we went to the experts to find out what it is and how to treat it.
What is sun poisoning?
"Sun poisoning is a reaction to a severe sunburn that affects your entire body," Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital and a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, tells Allure. Essentially, a case of sun poisoning feels like the flu — in addition to dealing with a painful burn, you might have a fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, exhaustion, and even fainting spells.
"Symptoms last anywhere from a few hours in mild cases to days in more severe cases," Julie Karen, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and spokesperson for the makers of Banana Boat, tells Allure.
The culprit behind the total body reaction is inflammation, explains Zeichner. When you get burned, your scorched skin becomes inflamed (that's what causes the redness and tenderness). But burns, particularly bad ones, also cause systemic inflammation throughout your body, he says. In other words, the effects of a sunburn go beyond skin-deep.
How do you treat sun poisoning?
If spending too much time in the sun gives you a case of sun poisoning, there are two things you should do right away: First and foremost, get out of the sun. "Ideally, you should go inside and gradually cool skin with a cool compress or a cool bath," Karen says. "Sun avoidance for several days is also critical."
Next, Zeichner recommends taking an anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen, and staying well hydrated to help reduce the systemic inflammation and speed up the healing of the sunburn.
If that doesn't help or your symptoms are severe — aka you have a fever, chills, and vomiting — both Zeichner and Karen recommend calling your dermatologist ASAP. "If not suspected or detected, sun poisoning can lead to severe dehydration requiring hospitalization," Karen says.
How do you prevent it?
Of course, just like sunburns, the best way to treat serious sun poisoning cases is to prevent them. You can do this with a liberal application of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, says Karen. We recommend La Roche-Posay Anthelios Sport Activewear Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 60 or Supergoop Super Power Sunscreen Mousse Broad Spectrum SPF 50, as both offer a high-protection level and are water- and sweat-resistant.
"You should apply a golf-ball sized portion of sunscreen 15 minutes before heading outside and reapply every two hours. You should also reapply after swimming or sweating, and immediately after towel drying," Karen says. If you're more prone to getting sunburns — say, you have fair skin or are on medications that make you more sensitive to the sun — you're also more likely to get sun poisoning, Karen adds, so wearing SPF is extra important to keep you from feeling sick.
Stay on top of your sunscreen routine for a sunburn- and sun poison-free summer.
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