understanding sun allergies causes symptoms and management
understanding sun allergies causes symptoms and management

Understanding Sun Allergy Symptoms, Causes and Management

4 min read



Yes, sun allergies are real. It can seem like a cruel twist of fate to be allergic to something that drives Earth’s existence but if you are one of the people that suffer from this type of allergy, know that you’ve got millions of people to commiserate with.

Sun allergies, also referred to as photodermatitis or photosensitivity disorders, are a group of conditions characterized by abnormal reactions of the skin to sunlight or artificial ultraviolet (UV) light. The precise cause of sun allergies is still not fully understood, but researchers believe that it involves a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Types of Sun Allergies

Polymorphic Light Eruption (PLE): PLE is the most common type of sun allergy. It typically occurs in the spring and summer months when the skin is exposed to higher levels of UV radiation. PLE causes itchy or burning red rashes, bumps, or blisters on sun-exposed areas such as the arms, neck, chest, and legs.

Solar Urticaria: A condition in which exposure to the sun or light source can lead to itchy wheals (hives) within minutes. Most common symptoms are itchiness, redness, and stinging sensation that will eventually improve when removed from the exposure.

Photoallergic Reaction: This type of sun allergy is a result of a reaction between UV rays and certain substances applied to the skin, including fragrances, sunscreen ingredients, cosmetics, and medications. The reaction causes an itchy, red rash that often spreads beyond the exposed area.

Photo-aggravated Eczema: Individuals with pre-existing eczema may experience a worsening of their condition due to sun exposure. The combination of heat, sweat, and UV rays can trigger or exacerbate eczema symptoms, leading to intense itching, dryness, and skin inflammation.

Actinic Prurigo: This rare genetic condition primarily affects Native American and Latino populations. It causes intense itching and skin lesions on sun-exposed areas, often beginning in childhood.

Symptoms of Sun Allergies

The symptoms of sun allergies can vary depending on the type of reaction and the individual's sensitivity to sunlight. Common symptoms include:

Redness: Sun-exposed areas may develop redness, which can range from mild to severe.

Itching: Itchy skin is a prevalent symptom of sun allergies and can be accompanied by a burning or stinging sensation.

Rashes: Raised bumps, blisters, or hives may appear on the skin, often in a pattern following sun exposure.

Swelling: In some cases, sun allergies may cause swelling of the affected area, making it feel tender or painful.

Peeling or Scaling: After a sun allergy reaction, the skin may peel or develop dry patches.

Managing Sun Allergies

While sun allergies can’t be completely cured, there are ways to manage and alleviate symptoms.

Sun Protection: The best defense against sun allergies is prevention. Use broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF, wear protective clothing (long sleeves, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses), and opt for shade during peak sun hours (10 am to 4 pm).

Allergy Testing: If you think you may have a sun allergy, consult a dermatologist or allergist for a diagnosis. They may recommend patch testing or photo testing to identify the specific triggers.

Medications: Antihistamines can help alleviate itching and reduce allergic reactions. In severe cases, topical or oral corticosteroids may be prescribed to reduce inflammation.

Avoid Triggers: Identify and avoid substances that can trigger or exacerbate sun allergies (i.e. certain medications, fragrances, or skincare products). Check labels for ingredients known to cause photosensitivity.

Gradual Exposure: For individuals with PLE or photo-aggravated eczema, gradually increasing sun exposure under the guidance of a licensed provider may help build tolerance. Start with short periods of sun exposure and increase gradually while protecting the skin. One study even found that increased UV light exposure in infants was associated with reduced eczema outcomes in early childhood; however, additional studies are needed to confirm this.

Phototherapy: In some cases, controlled exposure to specific wavelengths of UV light under medical supervision may help desensitize the skin and reduce sun allergy symptoms.

(1) Oakley AM, Ramsey ML. Polymorphic Light Eruption (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430886/). [Updated 2022 Aug 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-.

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