Sun Poisoning: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Prevention

Updated in January 2023

Sun poisoning can occur after prolonged time in the sun or in a hot environment. It can also emerge after intense physical activity. 

Due to a rapid increase in body temperature, sun poisoning can cause symptoms like headache, general malaise and nausea. It is associated with more severe symptoms as well, like dehydration, fainting and seizures.

To avoid sun poisoning, you should try to avoid the sun during hottest hours of the day (usually between 12pm and 4pm), use sunscreen, and wear hats and light, long-sleeve shirts and pants in breathable materials. 

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Main symptoms

Symptoms from sun poisoning occur due to a rapid increase in body temperature. Some common symptoms include: 

  1. Very red, hot and dry skin 
  2. Headache 
  3. Increase heart rate and respiratory rate
  4. Thirst, dry mouth and dry eyes
  5. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea 
  6. Decrease level of consciousness and confusion
  7. Fainting
  8. Weakness

With regards to confusion, people with sun poisoning may also be disoriented to person, place or time. 

Common causes

The main cause of sun poisoning is prolonged time under sun without sunscreen or a hat. This can lead to rapid increases in body temperature, causing symptoms.

In addition to excessive sun exposure, sun poisoning can occur in any situation that involve a fast increase in body temperature, like intense physical activity, over-dressing and hot environments. 

Why it’s serious

Although symptoms can appear mild and resolve over time, sun poisoning can still pose several risks for your health. The main health risks of sun poisoning are: 

  1. Second or third-degree burns
  2. Increased risk for infection from burns
  3. Dehydration
  4. Vomiting and diarrhea, which lead to dehydration
  5. Nervous system abnormalities, like seizures, brain damage and coma 

These dangers exist due to the body‘s inability to produce sweat and regulate body temperature, which can happen even after removing yourself from the sun. A very high body temperature can lead to rapid fluid losses, causing you to eliminate vitamins and minerals that are needed for optimal body functioning.

Treatment options

If you start to experience sun poisoning, move to a well-ventilated, shaded area and drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. You can apply a hydrating cream or after-sun cream on your body to protect your skin, and take a bath in cool water to bring the body temperature back down. 

If symptoms do not improve and you continue to feel dizziness, headaches or nausea, you should proceed immediately to a hospital for further evaluation and possible treatment. 

Prevention measures

To prevent sun poisoning, consider the following measures: 

  • Apply sunscreen that is appropriate for your skin type, at least 15 minutes before sun exposure 
  • Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day, especially on hot days 
  • Avoid staying under the sun during the hottest hours of day (12pm to 4pm). Look for shaded, fresh and ventilated areas instead. 
  • If you are frequently swimming, be sure to apply sunscreen every 2 hours to ensure maximum protection.

You should also be sure to wear a hat and long-sleeve loose clothing to protect your skin from the skin and prevent burns.