IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Is it a sun burn or sun poisoning? Here's how to tell the difference

Though a sun burn and sun poisoning can be equally as painful, sun poisoning requires a bit more attention.
Even if you use the best SPF and reapply hourly, you can burn if you spend too much time in the sun.Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

A day at the beach is all fun and games — until a family member comes home with a blistering, red burn.

You can experience a severe sun burn after just a short period outdoors. Though a sun burn and sun poisoning can be equally as painful for your skin, sun poisoning requires a bit more attention. Here’s how to deal if it happens to you.

1. Be aware of the difference between sun burns and sun poisoning

How do you know if you have sun poisoning? “Sun poisoning is an allergic reaction and usually results in itchy bumps,” explained Dr. Cameron Rokhsar, a dermatologist in private practice in New York and an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “The bumps don’t have to be itchy though, and it’s important to rule out other diseases that make people sensitive to sunlight, like lupus.”

According to Dr. Cybele Fishman, a board-certified dermatologist, sun poisoning can make you feel sick. Other symptoms beyond pain and itching can include fever, chills, nausea and dizziness.

“Basically your skin hurts, you feel like crap and want to be in bed,” Dr. Fishman elaborated.

2. Determine the best treatment for you

“There’s evidence that aspirin and over-the-counter cortisone cream (one percent) can help to alleviate pain,” advised Dr. Rokhsar. “But if your skin is blistering and you feel ill, tired or fatigued, you should go to a board-certified dermatologist as soon as possible.”

If your skin isn’t blistering and the pain is tolerable, other remedies like applying cool compresses with water or milk, rehydrating with electrolyte-containing water, and using bland lotions (i.e. no fragrance) on the burn, can help, according to Fishman.

3. The best way to prevent sun burns and sun poisoning is by protecting your skin

“SPF only describes protection from UVB rays — to protect from UVA, look for lotions that say ‘broad spectrum,'” said Fishman. “Even better, look for a sunscreen with at least six percent zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Not only do they provide protection against both UVA and UVB, but they are minerals, not chemicals, so they won’t cause allergies.”

Fishman further cautioned that truly the best way to care for your skin is to spend less time in the sun.

“Even if you use the best SPF on the planet and reapply hourly, you can and will burn if you spend too much time in the sun, which may be as little as a half hour for some people,” Fishman warned.

Take necessary precautions when spending time outdoors — wear a hat, keep most skin covered and apply sunscreen as frequently as you can. There’s no fun in ruining a sunny day with a blistering burn.