Updated 04 June 2015

Summer: bikinis, sun and allergies

Summer means fun in the sun for most, but for a group of sun-sensitive people sunshine could have terrible consequences. Here's all you need to know about summer sun allergy.

With summer approaching fast everybody is keen to shed a couple of kilos and get their bodies bikini-ready so that they can go and bronze themselves at the beach.

But what if, after a glorious day in the sun, you return to your home only to discover you've developed a nasty, itchy rash all over? 

It could be the heat, or something you ate, but it could also be that you have developed an allergy to the sun, aka, photosensitivity 

Read: How allergies are diagnosed

Allergic reactions to the sun

Sun allergy (photosensitivity) occurs when the immune system overreacts to sunlight exposure. This type of allergy causes an itchy red rash on areas of the skin exposed to light, and in severe cases patients may develop hives or blisters.

This image shows skin affected by a sun allergy

Image credit: 

How sun allergy develops

Research suggests that sun allergy occurs similarly to a virus: the body identifies the parts of the skin exposed to the sun as a foreign substance.

This triggers the immune system to launch an attack, producing irritated or chapped skin.

For people sensitive to the sun, the allergic reaction can be triggered by brief or prolonged sun exposure.

It can also be triggered by spending time in the sun while taking certain drugs or using certain skincare products. Over 50 different drugs can be a trigger for the condition, including several antibiotics, cardio and high blood pressure drugs as well as sedatives and some narcotics. 

Photosensitivity is not the same as sunburn. It is more common in women than men and affects people of all skin types.

The condition is generally hereditary and more common for those who have other skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis.

Preventing sun allergy

Once sun allergy has been diagnosed by your GP or dermatologist, you should:

- try to stay out of direct sunlight as much as possible.
- wear protective gear: sun hats, sun glasses.
- always wear sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
- stay away from artificial tanning procedures like spray-on tans and tanning beds.

Treating sun allergy

People with a sun-related rash should:

- take an anti-histamine to curb the body's release of histamines (which occurs when any allergic reaction takes place in the body).
- discontinue the use of medication if the rash is linked to drug use and sun exposure.
- refrain from using scented soaps and lotions.
- use calamine lotion or buchu or aloe gel on the affected areas to soothe the burning sensation and swelling.

Watch: A skin expert explains:

If a sun-related rash does not respond to these general treatment methods or if you think you may be affected by this type of allergy, you should consult your GP or dermatologist to prevent the rash from becoming infected.

If you have related concerns ask our skin expert or allergy expert

Read more:

7 tanning myths
Screen yourself against the sun
Allergy skin test

Sources: Daily Mail;; Mayo Clinic.

Image: take care in the sun, Shutterstock


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Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies. obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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