Summer is in full swing, and more than a few of us have already dealt with a miserable sunburn. (Please pass the aloe.) On a good day, I fall into the category of “people who burn after 10 minutes in the sun,” but that’s because I’m simply sensitive to sunlight. It’s not uncommon to be sensitive to the sun, but approximately 10 to 15 percent of the population is allergic to the sun according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Sun allergy vs. sun sensitivity
If you’re the type who becomes exhausted and burned when exposed to the sunlight, you may be wondering if an allergy is the culprit. So, first things first: Let’s talk about what sets a sun allergy (also known as polymorphous light eruption) apart from sun sensitivity.
“The difference between sun sensitivity and sun allergy has to do with the severity of symptoms,” Dr. Niket Sonpal, practicing internist and gastroenterologist and an assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, tells SheKnows. “Sun sensitivity means you are more likely to develop a sunburn, while sun allergy or photosensitivity is a condition that occurs due to [an] underlying genetic or medication-induced allergic process.”
Sonpal says it’s not entirely clear what causes the body to develop this allergic reaction. “However, the immune system recognizes some components of the sun-altered skin as ‘foreign,’ and the body activates its immune defenses against them,” he says. “Basically the sun makes your own skin cells look foreign to your immune system, and then it attacks those ‘weird looking cells.'”
If you suspect you have a sun allergy, you’ll of course want to consult with your doctor to obtain a diagnosis and discuss treatment. Dr. Anna Guanche, a board certified dermatologist in Los Angeles, explains the symptoms.
“It’s a distinctly sun-distributed itchy, burny rash. Where the bikini is or the sleeves are will not be affected, and then sharply, the rash starts where the clothing ends,” Guanche tells SheKnows. “It appears usually within two hours after sun exposure.”
Guanche also notes that a sun allergy isn’t necessarily a lifelong condition. She says it can suddenly show up one day in a person who has no prior history of it, and the allergy can also disappear one or two years later.
If the symptoms outlined by Guanche sound painfully familiar, it’s probably time to schedule an appointment with your doctor to get a diagnosis or determine whether something else entirely is responsible for your symptoms.
Sonpal explains that sun allergy or photosensitivity is diagnosed through a clinical exam and history with your doctor, detailing your symptoms after sun exposure. “I ask my patients to take pictures of their skin when it first happens and as it progresses,” he says. “This is because at times in mild PLE… the symptoms can resolve quickly.”
You can also request a skin biopsy of the affected areas — Sonpal describes this as the most accurate way to diagnose the disorder.
Both Sonpal and Guanche explain that treating a sun allergy primarily involves preventative measures, such as wearing plenty of sunscreen, avoiding peak sun times and wearing sun-protective clothing. But in more severe cases, medication and other measures may be required.
When there are acute symptoms, Sonpal says physicians will ameliorate symptoms by using a combination of steroids and other immunomodulating medications.
Guanche says that an alternative treatment known as “skin hardening” is also sometimes used. Skin hardening involves repeated sun exposure in the affected areas until the rash no longer shows up. “It would be akin to having allergy shots, where the patient is exposed to doses of the allergen enough times that you develop immunity or tolerance,” Guanche explains.
Even if you don’t have a sun allergy, don’t forget to keep that SPF on hand every day this summer. After all, not taking care of our skin can cause myriad health problems — so soak up the sun responsibly this summer!