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Irritated Summer Skin? It Might Not Be Sunburn

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Summer is in full swing and Canadians are flocking outdoors to bask in the warm weather. By now, we're all used to warnings about too much sun and well-versed in strategies for reducing exposure (think sunscreen and protective clothing). But have you ever taken these steps only to return indoors and find a painful rash, discoloured skin or inflammation?

All too often, our first reaction is to pass it off as sunburn, which most people are at risk of developing if exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays for too long. However, the true culprit might be photosensitivity.

What is Photosensitivity?

Photosensitivity is an immune system reaction, which can be triggered by even a short amount of time in the sun. There are two different types of reactions: phototoxic and photoallergic. Phototoxic reactions are the result of new chemicals introduced in the body, which interact with UV rays. Photoallergic reactions are much less common and are typically caused by topical medicines or photosensitizing agents. Phototoxic reactions occur within a few hours, while photoallergic reactions tend to be delayed and are not limited to the exposed areas but instead can spread across the body.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of photosensitivity can vary greatly from person to person but it's most likely to appear as an exaggerated sunburn or skin rash. The rash may be itchy, and in serious cases there could be blistering and peeling of the skin. Just as symptoms can differ, the amount of sun exposure required to induce a negative reaction varies depending on the individual.

What causes photosensitivity?

The most common cause of photosensitivity is as a side effect of medication. Certain antihistamines, antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, diuretics and even skin agents are all known to create a reaction. There are also several medical conditions that can cause photosensitivity such as lupus and rosacea.

Diagnosing photosensitivity

In order to properly diagnose the problem, a complete medical history is required. Pharmacists can look at your current prescriptions to identify if you are taking any medications that may make you prone to photosensitivity. Other factors, such as the pattern of your rash or the amount of time elapsed since exposure to the sun, can provide clues to help guide diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Treatment

If a medication or another product is making your skin more sensitive to sun exposure, speak with your pharmacist as soon as possible, as there may be other options that don't cause the same side effects. Otherwise, it's important to avoid excessive time spent in the sun as well as the use of tanning devices.

A mild reaction may be handled similarly to sunburn, with skin protectants and topical or injectable treatments to relieve pain. Patients may also benefit from the application of cooling creams or gels. Severe reactions may be handled by oral or topical corticosteroids.

Minimizing exposure to direct sunlight is the most effective way to protect your skin, regardless of whether or not you have photosensitivity. Wearing long clothing and applying sunscreen to exposed areas are also ways to prevent skin damage from the sun's harmful UV rays.

If you do have a negative reaction or rash, your local Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacist can check your medications and in certain provinces can prescribe, if appropriate, something to help with the symptoms and make you comfortable.