Sunburn or sun poisoning: When is it time to seek treatment?

Symptoms of a severe sunburn, or sun poisoning, also can indicate heatstroke and should be taken seriously

Most people get sunburns. That painful tightness and red skin causes discomfort with every movement. Have you ever blistered from sunburn, or wondered if you have sun poisoning and need to seek medical treatment?

Melody Presley, APRN, nurse practitioner with Norton Community Medical Associates – Taylorsville, answers a few questions regarding sunburns and when to seek treatment:

What is sun poisoning?

Sun poisoning is a severe sunburn. Hives and blisters are typical of sun poisoning, which is an allergic reaction to too much ultraviolet radiation.

Sun poisoning symptoms include the hives or rash on top of the sunburn, sometimes called sun rash. Other symptoms:

  • Blisters
  • Dehydration
  • Dizziness
  • Fever, chills
  • Headache
  • Nausea

Who is most at risk for sunburn?

Blonds, redheads and people with blue eyes and fair skin are also at an increased risk. Sunburns are most likely to occur between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., so plan accordingly.

Parents should always keep children under 6 months old out of direct sunlight.

How do I tell if my sunburn is severe enough to need medical treatment?

Severe sunburn causes blisters over a large area. It may result in multiple small blisters or one large blister. If you are experiencing severe pain with headaches, vomiting, fever and/or dehydration, consider seeing a doctor. These symptoms are similar to heat exposure or heatstroke and should be taken seriously.

If your child blisters from a sunburn or experiences any of these symptoms, get medical help right away. In extreme situations, hospitalization may be necessary so that IV fluids (for dehydration) or pain-controlling medications can be administered.

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If my sunburn isn’t sun poisoning but still hurts, how should I treat it?

Mild sunburns can be treated with topical creams, such as aloe, calamine lotion, compresses or a cool bath. You also can take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) to alleviate the discomfort, provided use is not medically contraindicated.

Hydration is also important so if you have a sun burn, be sure to drink plenty of water.

There are other nontraditional methods, such as soaking in a bath of Epsom salts or oatmeal.

Any other advice when it comes to preventing sunburn and sun poisoning?

Always wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor, or SPF, of 30 or greater and apply it properly. It’s never a good idea to mix alcohol with outdoor activities. Alcohol impairs judgment and alters your perception of time, making you more likely to forget to reapply sunscreen.

Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going out in the sun and then every two hours. Reapply every 80 minutes you are in the water, whether you think the sunscreen is waterproof or not. Also reapply after towel-drying.

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