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Medication and Sunburn: Know the Risks

Many common prescription and over-the-counter medications have a summertime side effect: They can cause an abnormal reaction to sunlight (known as photosensitivity) and reduce your tolerance for extreme heat. Not everyone who takes these medications will have a reaction, and sometimes reactions can occur in people after long-term use of a medication.

Medication and Sunburn

There are two kinds of photosensitive reactions:

  • A phototoxic reaction results when a medication you take (such as a pill or an injection) is dispersed throughout your body, including your skin. The drug interacts with sunlight in such a way that skin cells are damaged. You may develop a sunburn-like rash within a few hours or several days after sun exposure.
  • A photoallergic reaction is typically caused by topical medications (those you apply to your skin). These reactions usually result in an eczema-like rash. They can take a few days to develop and are less common than phototoxic reactions.

Saving Your Skin

Adults often don’t take the same precautions with their own skin as they do with their children. Many adults think that if their skin is already damaged from sunburns or too much tanning when they were younger that wearing sunscreen won’t make a difference. The truth is that you should always protect your skin when you go outside in the sun.

The first step is to discuss with your pharmacist whether any of the medications you take can cause sun sensitivity (here is a list of some common ones).  If so, it is very important to take precautions to protect your skin. Follow these steps:

Use sunscreen

Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects against UVA, UVB, and UVC rays) to all exposed skin at least 20 minutes before going outside—even if you will only be walking to the subway! Sunscreens contain substances that reduce the amount of ultraviolet light from the sun that penetrates your skin. The amount of protection is measured in Sun Protection Factor (SPF). The higher the SPF, the greater the protection from ultraviolet light.

What’s almost as important is SPF, is applying sunscreen properly. If you’re at the beach, imagine filling a shot glass with lotion. That’s the amount you should use on your body! Sunscreen wears off and should be reapplied every 30 to 60 minutes, especially if you are swimming or sweating. NOTE: Some sunscreens can cause a skin reaction. If you have sensitive skin, ask your doctor or pharmacist to recommend a physical sunblock.

Wear protective clothing

Loose-fitting shirts with long sleeves, trousers, and long skirts shield skin, but don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat to protect ears and neck, and sunglasses to protect your eyes.

Limit exposure to ultraviolet light

Avoid sun exposure between 10 AM and 4 PM, when sunlight is most intense. (This is year-round, not just in the summer.) Use an umbrella (which blocks almost all of the sun’s rays) or seek shade.

Medication and Heat

Medications can also cause heat sensitivity, which may increase your risk for dehydration. If you take diuretics, decongestants, allergy medications, or blood pressure medications, discuss any potential side effects with your pharmacist.

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