ultimate guide to sun allergies title image

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The Complete Guide to Sun Allergies

You have found yourself with some sort of rash or blister after being out in the sun (oh no!). Is this a sun allergy? Are sun allergies real?

Prepare to find the answers to all your questions inside this sun allergy guide.

Are sun allergies real? 

Yes, sun allergies are real, and they affect all ages (children and adults alike).

The term “sun allergy” (photosensitivity) is a blanket term used when there is an irrational immune response to sun exposure.

These immune system responses include polymorphous light eruption (PMLE), solar urticaria, Actinic prurigo, and chemical photosensitization (Photoallergic or phototoxic reaction). 

Other sun-related conditions that ARE NOT considered sun allergies include heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke.

These conditions are not caused by an immune system reaction and are considered a medical emergency.

What is the scientific name for a sun allergy?

The scientific name for a sun allergy is “Photosensitivity”. Harvard Health defines sun allergy as, “(A sun allergy) an immune system reaction to sunlight, most often, an itchy red rash.”

How common are sun allergies?

sun allergies affect 1- -15% of the U.S. population image #allergypreventions #sunallergies

The most common type of sun allergy is polymorphous light eruption (PMLE) which affects 10 – 15% of the U.S. population. 

The Skin Cancer Foundation elaborates that there are 18 additional diseases related to sun allergies, but are not as prevalent as PMLE.

What causes sun allergies

Possible reasons you may be experiencing sun allergies are a family history of sun allergies, certain diseases, or medications that cause increased sensitivity to sunlight. 

Sometimes the cause of sun allergies is “idiopathic” which is a fancy way of saying it is unknown.

Common medications that cause sun allergies

This list is from the FDA but is not all-inclusive, as there are over 100 medications that can cause photosensitivity. 

Also, note that not everyone will experience sun allergy-like symptoms when taking these medications, it is just a possible side effect known as chemical photosensitization.

Medications that can cause sun sensitivity 

medications that can cause sun allergies infographic - antibiotics, antifungals, antihistamines, cholesterol-lowering drugs, diuretics, NSAIDs, oral contraceptives & estrogen, phenothiazines, psoralens, retinoids, sulfonamides, sulfonylureas, alpha-hydroxy acids. source of information is fda.gov. visual provided by allergypreventions.com

  • Antibiotics (ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, levofloxacin, ofloxacin, tetracycline, trimethoprim)
  • Antifungals (flucytosine, griseofulvin, voriconazole)
  • Antihistamines (cetirizine, diphenhydramine, loratadine, promethazine, cyproheptadine)
  • Cholesterol-lowering drugs (simvastatin, atorvastatin, lovastatin, pravastatin)
  • Diuretics (thiazide diuretics: hydrochlorothiazide, chlorthalidone, chlorothiazide.; other diuretics: furosemide and triamterene)
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, naproxen, celecoxib, piroxicam, ketoprofen)
  • Oral contraceptives and estrogens
  • Phenothiazines (tranquilizers, anti-emetics: examples, chlorpromazine, fluphenazine, promethazine, thioridazine, prochlorperazine)
  • Psoralens (methoxsalen, trioxsalen)
  • Retinoids (acitretin, isotretinoin)
  • Sulfonamides (acetazolamide, sulfadiazine, sulfamethizole, sulfamethoxazole, sulfapyridine, sulfasalazine, sulfisoxazole)
  • Sulfonylureas for type 2 diabetes (glipizide, glyburide)
  • Alpha-hydroxy acids in cosmetics

Diseases related to abnormal photosensitivity responses of the skin 

According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, there are 19 documented diseases are related to abnormal photosensitivity response, or more commonly known as sun allergies. 

19 sun allergy-related diseases 

19 diseases related to sun allergies infographic. actinic folliculitis, bloom syndrome, actinic prurigo, darier's disease, chronic actinic dermatitis, hydroa vacciniforme, dermatomyositis, pellagra, lichen plaus actinicus, polymorphic ligh eruption (PMLE), lupus erythematosus, psoriasis, pemphigus, rothmund-thompson syndrome, pseudoporphyria, solar urticaria, rosacea, disseminated superficial actinic porokeratosis (DSAP), Xeroderma pigmentosum

  1. Actinic folliculitis
  2. Actinic Prurigo
  3. Bloom Syndrome
  4. Chronic Actinic Dermatitis
  5. Darier’s Disease
  6. Dermatomyositis
  7. Disseminated Superficial Actinic Porokeratosis (DSAP)
  8. Hydroa Vacciniforme
  9. Lichen Planus Actinicus
  10. Lupus Erythematosus
  11. Pellagra
  12. Pemphigus
  13. Polymorphic Light Eruption (PMLE)
  14. Pseudoporphyria
  15. Psoriasis
  16. Rosacea
  17. Rothmund-Thomson Syndrome
  18. Solar Urticaria
  19. Xeroderma Pigmentosum

Can you develop sun allergies?

You can develop sun allergies, which usually manifests in polymorphous light eruption (PMLE), the most common type of sun allergy.

Regardless of age, you can develop sun allergies when you are a toddler, or not until you become an adult.  

Fact: Females are more likely to develop PMLE. 

However, if you are taking a medication that increases photosensitivity (chemical photosensitization) you could be a risk for developing “sun allergies”, but usually only lasts until to stop taking the medication.

Fact: Females are more likely to develop polymorphic light eruption (PMLE) than men

Sun allergy symptoms

Symptoms of sun allergies vary from person to person, but there are common sun allergy symptoms you can look for in children and adults.

Common symptoms: 

  • Rash
  • Blisters
  • Bumps
  • Hives
  • Dry red patches
  • Inflamed or itchy skin

Duration of symptoms

The duration of sun allergy symptoms varies according to your reaction and severity, but typically the symptoms can last for up to two weeks after sun exposure. 

Where do sun allergies show up on the body?

Sun allergies can show up anywhere on the body but are most commonly found where you are exposed to the sun.

The most common areas that sun allergies show up are on the neck, arms, hands, chest, and legs.

Could my sun allergy be contact dermatitis from my sunscreen?

Yes, it can be your sunscreen. 

You or your toddler, are out in the sun and begin to have symptoms that resemble a sun allergy, but some symptoms don’t quite line up…this may be a sunscreen allergy.

A sunscreen allergy is also known as allergic contact dermatitis.

Usually, a rash will develop where you placed the sunscreen on the skin.

Less commonly, the rash has been known to spread to other areas of the body where sunscreen was not applied.

Why am I allergic to my sunscreen?

Sunscreens have lots of ingredients, most of which are used to protect our skin from the harmful rays of the sun.

Other ingredients are included to help keep the sunscreen on the skin or are added as a fragrance.

Consequently, it may be hard to narrow down what exactly you are allergic to due to these extensive ingredient lists.

What you can do about a sunscreen allergy or sensitivity

Finding an effective sunscreen with minimal ingredients might be your best bet to preventing any future sunscreen rashes.

Of course, discuss these options with your doctor and ensure you truly have an allergy to your sunscreen. 

I have found this sunscreen on Amazon which has minimal ingredients, no fragrance, and great ratings, check it out!

CeraVe Suncreen Amazon Link

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How to prevent & treat sun allergies

There are multiple ways to try and avoid or prevent sun allergies, but this may be difficult depending on your circumstances. 

However, there is no cure for polymorphous light eruption (PMLE), which is the most common sun allergy. 

The NHS (National Health Service, UK) gives us some pointers to prevent and treat sun allergies.

Sun allergy treatment & prevention options: 

sun allergy treatment and prevention options infographic - avoid the sun, wear sunscreen, steroid creams, UV treatments, "hardening of skin" vitamin D, substitute medications, wear long clothing

Avoidance (Prevention)

Avoid being out in the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. as this is when the sun is beaming down on us the hardest.

In addition, this is a good practice regardless of a sun allergy as it limits harmful ultraviolet exposure.

 Wear sunscreen (Prevention)

Whenever in the sun, utilize a high-quality sunscreen that is at least 30 SPF (sun protection factor) and blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

These rays are linked to skin cancer and premature aging.

Steroid creams and ointments (Treatment)

Your doctor might prescribe corticosteroids to treat a sun allergy rash depending on your rash and/or hives severity.

Desensitization or UV treatment (Prevention)

This prevention method is like allergy shots, where you are exposed to a low amount of UV in a clinic setting a few times a week and they gradually increase your UV exposure. 

The goal is to desensitize your skin in a controlled environment before your summer sun exposure begins.

This is not a permanent solution and will need to be accomplished around every spring.

Hardening or toughening (Prevention)

Hardening or toughening is similar to UV treatments, but you treat yourself. The goal is to “harden” your skin by exposing yourself to the sun for a few minutes a day and gradually working up to longer amounts of time outdoors. 

However, this will need to be accomplished every year, like the desensitization treatment.

Vitamin D (Prevention…maybe) 

Vitamin D may help as a prevention option, as individuals with sun allergies tend to be vitamin D deficient. 

Unfortunately, there is inconclusive evidence that a Vitamin D supplement will prevent or treat sun allergies, this still might be something to bring up with your doctor.

Medication substitution (Prevention)

Talk with your doctor about your current medications that have photosensitivity side effects, there may be an alternative medication that does not give you sun allergy symptoms.

Wear long clothing (Prevention)

Wearing long clothing will limit the amount of UV that gets on your skin which will aid in preventing sun allergy symptoms. 

Luckily there are lots of clothing brands on the market that have UV blockers built into the fabric for even more protection.

Final thoughts

I hope this guide has provided you with the answers you have been looking for, and thank you for stopping by. If you enjoyed this article, share it with your friends and colleagues!