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Why Do I Feel Sick from My Sunburn?


Reminder: Just one severe sunburn can double your risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. That lobster red is bad news no matter what, but when it comes to the short-term consequences, some cases are worse than others. Usually soothing aloe gel or a cooling yogurt mask can take the "ouch" out. (Try these foods that help your body recover from a long day at the beach.) Other times, a little more care is needed—stat. Delving a bit deeper into the science of the sun scorch can help you figure out when you're facing one of those times.

Whenever the skin is injured or subject to infection, our body mounts what is called an inflammatory response in defense. This means that when ultraviolet (UV) light damages the cells, blood vessels in the surrounding tissues dilate and release chemicals such as histamine, bradykinin, cytokines, and prostaglandins. A lot of side effects can happen as a result, including swelling of the skin, headache, fever, chills, nausea, or vomiting. If any of those occur, that's sign number one that you need to seek medical attention. Here are four more:

  • With a blistering burn, pay attention to how much surface area is burned. If blisters are covering at least 20 percent of the skin's surface (so, your entire chest or back), get to the doctor as there's a serious risk of infection. (See how you might have applied your sunscreen wrong.)
  • If the burn is accompanied by a high fever (102°F or higher), extreme pain, headache, confusion, nausea, or chills, call the doctor—these symptoms mean you might need additional care, such as medication or IV fluids, until symptoms resolve.
  • If there is yellow drainage or red streaking from a blister, it could indicate an infection. For these cases, see a doctor immediately as prescription medication or IV antibiotics might be necessary.
  • If the sunburn doesn't heal within a week or so, it may be a good idea to touch base with the doc, as the unprotected exposure to UV rays may have brought on another skin condition. (And watch out for these surprising spots you can get sunburned.)

Moral of the story: Burns are always bad. But if it's severe enough that your immune system triggers a major inflammatory response, a little red can turn into a big deal that definitely shouldn't be ignored. And as always, don't forget to get annual head-to-toe skin checks by a dermatologist to keep your skin safe.


Mona Gohara, MD

Oberlin-bred feminist, Yale-trained dermatologist, mother, Virgo, and lover of all things Broadway, tulle, and 80's. Favorite TV show: the Mindy Project because beauty and brains are a wonderful thing. 

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