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When the Sun Makes You Sick

Certain medications react with the sun, which means you need to be vigilant about skin protection

En español | This summer, while you're having fun in the sun, keep in mind that three conditions linked to sun exposure — drug-induced sun sensitivity, sun allergy, and sun-induced eczema — can seriously damage older skin.

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Drug-induced sun sensitivity, also known as phototoxicity, most often occurs when the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays interact with a medication you're taking and cause an almost immediate reaction on your skin. (See table below for a list of medications likely to cause skin reactions.)

A sun allergy, often called a photoallergy, comes on more slowly but can also be dangerous. This type of sun sensitivity usually happens when UV rays convert a chemical, such as a fragrance on your skin, into a substance that your immune system decides to attack.The result is an itchy, red rash that can take several days to go away.

Finally, sun-induced eczema occurs when your entire immune system goes haywire, causing itchy, red skin or, in severe cases, blisters. Dermatologists think long-term, intense sun exposure may alter our skin in such a way that our immune system no longer recognizes it as our own. The condition tends to be more common in older men with a history of working outdoors, though it has also been seen in women who love to sunbathe.

Medications to Watch

The sun can irritate your skin if you're taking or using the following:

ibuprofen, naproxen, ketoprofen, celecoxib, piroxicam
Antibiotics tetracyclines, fluoroquinolones (ciprofloxacin, ofloxacin), sulfonamides
Statins atorvastatin, fluvastatin, lovastatin, pravastatin, simvastatin
Hypoglycemics sulfonylureas (glipizide, glyburide)
Diuretics furosemide, hydroclorothiazide
Sunscreens para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), cinnamates, benzophenones, salicylates
Fragrances musk ambrette, 6-methylcoumarin, sandalwood

To avoid these ailments, plus skin cancer, limit your sun exposure. Avoid the sun during peak hours (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.). Wear clothing made of a tightly woven material with long sleeves. And use the right sunscreen. Ultraviolet rays are made up of UVA and UVB rays, but the UVA rays are the bigger culprit in triggering sun-induced skin disorders. Make sure to buy sunscreen that contains one of the following ingredients, which block both types of rays: avobenzone, dioxybenzone, ecamsule, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide.

Three Types of Sun Illness and Their Symptoms

A pill bottle with pills floating around it

Photo by Margaret Riegel

Medication and sun can be a dangerous cocktail for older skin.

1. Phototoxicity

Frequency: Common
Onset of Symptoms: Minutes to hours after UV exposure
Location: Sun-exposed skin
Main Symptom: Pain
Appearance: Exacerbated sunburn

2. Photoallergy

Frequency: Rare
Onset of Symptoms: One to two days after UV exposure
Location: Sun-exposed skin
Main Symptom: Pain 
Appearance: Redness, rash

3. Sun-induced Eczema

Frequency: Rare
Onset of Symptoms: Gradually, over time
Location: Anywhere on skin
Main symptom: Itching
Appearance: Rash, blistering

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