Sunlight provides the world with warmth and energy, but it can also cause damage and harm. In most cases, a sunburn is generally more a nuisance than a health risk and the application of some burn lotion helps to alleviate the pain. But to those with an allergy to sunlight, a sunburn could result in blisters and scars, depending upon the severity of their reaction and the time spent outdoors.
Contained within those balmy sunbeams are ultraviolet rays, or UV radiation, an invisible light source responsible for skin reactions such as a mild or severe sunburn. Too much UV exposure overpowers the protective abilities of the melanin in your skin, causing red, painful areas. In people with an allergy to sunlight, this reaction is magnified, sometimes to a dangerous level.
Allergies are the result of an over-sensitive immune system mistaking an otherwise harmless substance as something dangerous. In the case of a sun allergy, the UV rays cause your skin cells to react, and it's this reaction that your immune system is responding to. It perceives the proteins in your skin cells as invaders and releases antibodies to neutralize the threat by attacking them. This, coupled with the reaction your skin is already undergoing because of exposure to the sun, is what causes the more exaggerated and severe symptoms of sun damage to your skin.
Types and Symptoms
The cause and severity of physical symptoms will depend on what type of sun allergy you have. There are four common types of sun allergies:
Polymorphic Light Eruption (PMLE)
The most common sun allergy, PMLE can sometimes be referred to as “sun poisoning” and affect the neckline, face, hands and back of the arms. Symptoms can appear anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours after sun exposure, and include red, swollen skin with small white or yellowish bumps.
Commonly found in children or young adults throughout the summer and autumn, Actinic prurigo can appear on the arms, hands, cheeks and neck, and sometimes causes severely chapped lips. Symptoms include itchy bumps that may fill with fluid and split open, and red, swollen patches of skin that spreads to areas of skin not exposed to sunlight originally.
Chronic Actinic Dermatitis
With symptoms appearing similar to those of a contact allergy, chronic actinic dermatitis usually appears on the scalp, face, back of the neck and arms, hands, and upper chest. It appears as patches of dry and itchy inflamed skin, sometimes with smaller, unaffected areas within larger sections.
Occurring mostly in older adults, solar urticaria symptoms usually appear within just minutes of exposure. Symptoms can appear on both exposed and covered areas of skin and include hives, itching and blisters.
Because the symptoms of a sun allergy are so similar to those of other allergies or conditions, your doctor will want to run some tests to rule out any other possibilities for your skin reaction. Whenever possible, allow your doctor to examine a reaction first hand to assist with proper diagnosis.
UV Light Testing/Phototesting
In this test, your skin is exposed to various wavelengths of UV light and watched for a reaction. Identifying the specific type of UV that causes your reaction is beneficial in properly diagnosing your type of sun allergy and subsequent treatment options.
Photopatch testing is performed to determine if a particular substance is causing your skin to react when exposed to sunlight. During this test, your doctor will apply the suspected reaction causing substance to two patches of your skin. 24 hours later, one patch will be exposed to UV light while the other will not. If only the UV exposed patch produces a physical reaction, your sun allergy is linked to the suspected substance.
Blood Tests and Skin Samples
Some underlying conditions, such as lupus, may be the real cause for your sun allergy, so your doctor may order these tests to rule out a larger medical reason.
Treatments for sun allergy symptoms are available in over-the-counter or prescription strength formulations, and your recommended remedy will depend upon the severity and frequency of your symptoms. Common treatments for allergies include over-the-counter antihistamines such as Claritin, Alavert or Benadryl to block histamines, the chemical your body releases that causes allergy symptoms. Corticosteroids are available in cream form, such as Cortaid or Cortizone, or oral medication, which is best used for only a short time to prevent or relieve a severe allergic reaction.
A little forethought and pre-planning can lessen or even prevent any allergic reactions you may experience when you next venture out into the sun, allowing you to enjoy your time outdoors.
- Plan your outdoor excursions for before 10 am or after 3 pm to avoid the sun at its strongest and brightest.
- Slowly acclimate yourself to sun exposure by gradually increasing the amount of time you spend outside during the spring or summer months.
- Protective clothing such as wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves help to minimize the amount of exposed skin while outdoors. Remember that UV rays are what you're trying to avoid, so avoid thin or loose weave fabrics.
- Use sunscreen religiously on all exposed skin every time you head outdoors, and reapply every two hours. Find a brand with an SPF factor of 30 or higher.
Living With a Sun Allergy
A diagnosis of a sun allergy shouldn't be viewed as a sentence to spend your life indoors. With some mindful precautions and attention, you should be able to avoid serious reactions while still enjoying an active life. Keep skin moisturizer on hand to soothe dry, irritated skin and apply calamine lotion or aloe vera to relieve the pain of a burn.
Treat your skin and allergies with care to avoid a painful reaction, and enjoy the light!