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Skin Care and Diseases

Sun poison

04/05/2007

Question:

Will sun poison cause your ankles to swell twice their size? Can I treat this problem at home?

Answer:

There are two reactions that commonly are referred to as "sun poisoning".

The first is called Polymorphous Light Eruption and looks like a skin rash. Women are more likely to get this than men. It occurs in susceptible individuals when they are exposed to sunlight that is more intense than usual, for example as in the first time you go out in the sun during the summer or when you expose a body part to sunlight that has no prior sunlight exposure. It may also occur if you travel to a higher latitude or lower latitude such as to a country closer to the equator where the sunlight has more strength. Normally the resulting skin-rash reaction heals within 7-10 days with no treatment as long as additional sun exposure is avoided. In the future using sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays is mandatory. (Sunlight is made up of UVA and UVB rays). Make sure the sunscreen protects against both UVB and UVA since these protective agents are more effective in preventing these breakouts.

The second is called Solar Urticaria. It is a rare reaction to sun exposure. This is a true sun allergy. It develops rapidly--moments after exposure, the skin begins to itch, and then becomes red. Wheals or vesicles appear (red patches and blisters). The actual mechanism that causes this reaction is unknown, however, antihistamines are effective in treating the reactions of some patients.

If you don't have a rash then you most likely do not have true sun poisoning. Swelling is a side effect of a bad sunburn, which may be what you are experiencing. The swelling and redness should go down over the next 48-72 hours. Cold compresses and, as long as you don't have other health issues, over the counter anti-inflammatories such as Advil will help with the pain. If the swelling does not change or is not the result of a severe sunburn, a visit to your doctor is a necessity.

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Response by:

Tatiana M Oberyszyn, PhD Tatiana M Oberyszyn, PhD
Associate Professor of Pathology
Associate Professor of Molecular Virology, Immunology & Medical Genetics
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University