Sun Allergies: Common Types and Treatment Options

Characterized mainly by inflamed and irritated skin, sun poisoning targets an unlucky few with allergic reactions

Attention sun-sensitive folks: be sure to apply a minimum of SPF 30 sunscreen

For some, the summer sun can signal the return of unpleasant allergy symptoms

Much as we all look forward to the return of summer sunshine, did you know that some people are actually allergic to sunlight? Allergic reactions to sunlight occur when ultraviolet (UV) radiation triggers changes in the body’s skin cells. The immune system mistakenly identifies proteins in the cells as harmful invaders, and then releases antibodies to attack those cells. This results in symptoms that include hives, blisters, or an itchy red rash.

Common Types of Sun Allergies

The most common type of sun allergy is called polymorphic light eruption (PMLE), or sun poisoning. Symptoms usually appear within hours or days after exposure to sunlight and include itchiness, the formation of tiny white or yellow bumps on a red background, or skin that’s red and swollen.

Actinic prurigo is characterized by chapped, split lips and conjunctivitis (an inflammation of the inside of the eyelid) as well as raised patches of red skin and itchy bumps that show up within days of sun exposure. Chronic actinic dermatitis can cause thick patches of dry, itchy and inflamed skin, with “islands” of skin that aren’t affected at all.

Risk factors for these sun-exposure-related conditions vary. PMLE is more common in Caucasians and in females under age 30, while actinic prurigo is most common in Aboriginal Peoples.

Possible Treatment Options

Certain medications (such as tetracycline antibiotics), chemicals (including fragrances), and medical disorders (like dermatitis) can cause photosensitivity, making the skin more sensitive to the sun’s effects. Treatment can include corticosteroid creams, oral antihistamines, and, for severe cases, oral corticosteroids or oral immunosuppressant medications. Skin moisturizers and soothing home remedies like calamine lotion and aloe vera can relieve irritation. In severe cases a person might be treated using progressive ultraviolet (UVA) light therapy to help reduce symptoms.

Since it’s almost impossible to avoid some sun exposure, people with sun-sensitivity should always wear a minimum SPF 30 sunscreen as well as sunglasses, a long-sleeved shirt and wide-brimmed hat. Minimizing exposure is the simplest and best way to avoid symptoms.

Originally published in Wellness Matters, Canada Wide Media’s quarterly newsletter on health and wellness.