Can the sun make you sick?

Can the sun make you sick? - an image of a sunset behind the clouds
More episodes in the Sounds Like Health Podcast

From sun stroke to sun poisoning, Cindy Weston, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, explains all sun-related health problems.

Episode Transcript

Mary Leigh Meyer: Howdy, welcome to Sounds Like Health. I am Mary Leigh Meyer.

Sam Craft: And I’m her co-host Sam Craft.

Mary Leigh Meyer: And we are here today with the lovely Cindy Weston. She’s a family nurse practitioner at the Texas A&M College of Nursing. Thanks for coming back on the show.

Cindy Weston: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.

Sam Craft: Round two. I forgot, we did flu last time, didn’t we?

Cindy Weston: We did.

Sam Craft: It was so much fun.

Cindy Weston: Yeah. I’m always excited to talk about health topics.

Sam Craft: We appreciate it. You were always great to us and we enjoy having you here.

Mary Leigh Meyer: Yes absolutely. We brought you here because it’s summertime and we’re all out in sun now and that’s something that can either go very right or very wrong. There’s a lot of bad things that can happen when you’re out in the sun. We’ve always heard the phrase, sun sickness or sun poisoning. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Cindy Weston: Sure. Sure. Yeah, you hear that term sun poisoning and it’s really a reflection of being out in the sun and the effects that you feel. You feel poisoned by the sun after you’ve been out for an extended period of time and the sun’s taken detrimental effects on you. It’s a feeling almost like having flu when you’ve been out in the sun too long. You feel tired, you can feel nauseated. Some people even have vomiting afterwards and achy all over, hot, feverish. That’s really when you hear that term, sun poisoning, it’s those after effects of having too much sun.

The sun can be good and it can elevate our mood in this time of year, we all like to get out in it. Especially on a clear day and when there’s that little breeze and it feels so good to be out in the sun but too much can be harmful and we know that it has long term effects.

Mary Leigh Meyer: And those symptoms, that’s different than sun, heat exhaustion. Because right, if it’s heat exhaustion, those symptoms happen immediately but doesn’t sun sickness kind of happen after the fact?

Cindy Weston: It’s interesting to hear it described. I guess, so typically being out in the sun what we worry about is the sunburn. A sunburn can happen after just 15 minutes of sun exposure. The way to protect against that is of course is sunscreen and you can do that through clothing that now has the UV protection. There’s a lot of nice clothing lines that have up to 50 UV protection and kind of start at the neck and cover your arms, good shirt. Or you can use sunscreen. At least an SPF of 30 but I really like the 50 because it gives you the good coverage. Ideally it should be applied about 20 to 30 minutes before you go out into the sun for that protection and so you have to kind of think ahead.

I’m going to be going out in the sun, just put it on in the morning and make sure that the ears are covered, the back of the neck, those really vulnerable areas that sometimes you miss. Wearing a hat helps protect the scalp. But those are preventative ways to help prevent a sunburn. What you’re referring to, sun sickness, would be after being out in the sun for an extended period of time, you tend to get a little dehydrated and lot of times that leads to that feeling of the weakness and dizziness and aching all over. Staying hydrated can help in addition to wearing the sunscreen to prevent a burn.

Sam Craft: The sunscreen helps you, prevent sunburns but does it help anything else on you as far as keeping the heat away? I guess the sun’s not getting to your skin so it’s not affecting you as much as it would be. I know when I get sunburn, it’s always feel hotter and I feel really awful. It’s kind of the same?

Cindy Weston: What you probably feel with that heat and maybe a little swelling and redness is the inflammatory response that comes as a result of the damaged skin or the exposure to heat and dehydration. It triggers the immune system which is trying to heal any damage to the body and the skin is the largest organ in the body so when our skin gets damaged, it really triggers that immune system to kick in to start repairing itself.

The blood vessels dilate and it sends all the immune mediators to start that repair process and that dilation leads to some swelling and redness and just feeling kind of crummy after exposure.

Sam Craft: I always feel beat up by the sun, especially when the top of my ears get sunburned. That feels awful.

Mary Leigh Meyer: I’ve gotten sunburned in my part before. It was the worst because I couldn’t brush my hair for a week. It was bad.

Cindy Weston: Guys are a lot better about wearing hats than we are. A hat is always a good idea for a woman when it’s in the store but when we get it home it’s like, wait a minute. I don’t look exactly the way I wanted it to look. It is important when you’re going to be out in the sun to protect the head and the scalp. That damage to the skin that occurs with too much sun exposure actually alters the DNA and even though the skin can repair, sometimes that DNA stays damaged and that’s what leads to skin cancer later on.

Sam Craft: That was my next question was skin cancer. I guess there’s no really telling how prone you are to get skin cancer from being in the sun for X amount of time. Nobody knows if there’s a real number or not but it’s still scary. Does sunscreen help? I don’t know if they can even prove that.

Cindy Weston: Absolutely.

Sam Craft: It does help?

Cindy Weston: Absolutely.

Sam Craft: Against skin cancer?

Cindy Weston: Because the goal with a sunscreen is to prevent the sunburn. The sunscreen being applied correctly, that 20 to 30 minutes before sun exposure and then reapplying every couple of hours, especially if you’re getting wet or sweating or getting in the water, that helps prevent the sunburn and preventing sunburns is what prevents the skin cancer because that’s when the skin gets damaged, the DNA gets damaged and although the skin will repair itself, sometimes the DNA stays damaged.

Sam Craft: When you say damage, that really brings sun poisoning back home. For me it kind of dumbs it down to really what the sun is doing to you. It really is poisoning you.

Mary Leigh Meyer: That’s why people get such leathery skin or a lot of different sunspots as they age. Is there a…

Cindy Weston: Wrinkles.

Sam Craft: Yeah, wrinkles for sure.

Mary Leigh Meyer: Is there, can that happen at any time in somebody’s life? If a young child gets sunburned a lot?

Cindy Weston: Yeah, it’s cumulative over the lifetime. Obviously the younger you are experiencing a sunburn, the more damaging it can be for the long term. Really want to protect children, young adults. The most vulnerable age is really the teen years to the early 20s because that’s when you kind of think, nothing’s going to happen to me. The nice tan, it can be appealing in appearance. That’s really one of the most vulnerable times because of the increased sun exposure. The only safe tan is a fake tan.

Sam Craft: Fake tan, meaning spray on tan. Because I was going to say because the tanning booths, the late 90s are like death beds now. It’s like skin cancer and scabies and all sorts of terrible things.

Mary Leigh Meyer: Scabies, goodness gracious.

Sam Craft: Terrible things. Nobody knew about them then. That was all the rage. That’s what it was.

Cindy Weston: The light in a tanning bed is mostly UVA light and it goes deeper and does that more significant damage. Yeah, tanning beds and exposure to tanning beds increases the lifetime risk of melanoma, malignant melanoma skin cancer by up to 75 percent.

Sam Craft: Good Lord.

Cindy Weston: Increases significantly.

Sam Craft: It’s almost a guarantee.

Cindy Weston: The risk that you’re going to have malignant melanoma.

Sam Craft: 75 percent, yeah.

Cindy Weston: It’s a significant increased risk.

Sam Craft: Time machine. Don’t get in tanning beds.

Mary Leigh Meyer: With skin cancer though, you can if you’re aware and you’re looking for it, sometimes it can be caught early enough but still don’t want to risk that 75 percent increase.

Sam Craft: Not for more brown, no.

Mary Leigh Meyer: That’s the UV, the different UV lights and I don’t think I realized that different clothes could protect you from different UV lights.

Sam Craft: Yeah, I’ve heard that.

Mary Leigh Meyer: I knew when you buy sunscreen, you want to get it that it protects ultraviolet A and B, is that correct?

Cindy Weston: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Yeah. And then also remember eye protection because you really want sunglasses that have that UV protection built into them as well. We forget about our eyes but the eye exposure to sun over time leads to cataracts later in life. All these things eventually catch up with you. In the early phases it doesn’t. It’s nice going out into the sun and feeling that bright sunshine on your face but over time, without protection, it will catch up.

Sam Craft: I think one thing that we didn’t talk about beforehand but I want to talk about is the mental health of vitamin D and what the sun can do to you and help you in that aspect of things. Because I know if you’re feeling depressed, they’ll tell you to get outside and get some sunshine. It’s not just like an old wives’ tale, that’s like a real thing, isn’t it?

Cindy Weston: It’s a real thing. The sun does help elevate our mood. It’s believed that the sun helps release serotonin as well which is kind of our feel good hormone. Getting out into the sun is good. We do wear sunscreen now and we do wear, we stay indoors a lot more than really throughout the prior history of the world. Vitamin D levels across our country, are oftentimes very low and people are vitamin D deficient. One way to get vitamin D is through the sun but you can also do it through supplement, oral supplement.

The sun exposure, just remember, it should be limited because beyond that 15 minutes, you’re running a risk of sunburn. Especially during the hottest parts of the day from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. That’s the highest risk for sunburn.

Sam Craft: Well even on cloudy days, some people say that cloudy days are way worse to get sunburn than just a direct sunlight, is that true?

Cindy Weston: Well it’s because a big part of it is you don’t realize that you’re having all that sun exposure because you don’t see the sun. It’s sometimes a little cooler outside on a cloudy day.

Mary Leigh Meyer: That’s very true.

Cindy Weston: You have more of that accumulation of the sun.

Mary Leigh Meyer: I feel like on a cloudy day I don’t remember to reapply because all I feel like if I’m in the middle of some activity out in the sun, I will feel how hot temperature wise my skin is and then that triggers me to reapply my sunscreen but if it’s cloudy, nice, it’s not on the top of my mind.

Sam Craft: I don’t even put anything on when it’s cloudy outside to be honest. If I’m outside working, I just don’t think about it because I’m like, oh well it’s the sun. It’s cloudy. It’s not, for the exact reason we just talked about, I just don’t do it. I will now.

Cindy Weston: Good, good.

Sam Craft: Note to self now. Yes.

Mary Leigh Meyer: What happens when you do get a sunburn or you do start to feel sick from the sun, is there a way to reverse what you’ve already done?

Cindy Weston: Well if you’re feeling like you’ve had too much sun, staying hydrated is number one because a lot of times the effects are related to dehydration from the sun exposure. Really drinking extra water, a diluted sport drinks, half sport drink, half water, to help replace some of the electrolytes. Eating a banana to help replace some of those electrolytes and drinking a full glass of water. Hydration is the key. You can use anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen can help with the body aches, or that inflammatory response that comes with the sunburn. Aloe, the plant aloe has a lot of health benefits to put that aloe on your skin.

Sam Craft: It feels so good.

Mary Leigh Meyer: It does, it’s immediate.

Sam Craft: It’s like an air conditioner for my skin.

Mary Leigh Meyer: I almost feel like it takes all the heat out and it just kind of sizzles. It feels so good.

Cindy Weston: Like frying an egg.

Sam Craft: Like a little egg cooking.

Cindy Weston: It’s a moisturizer and it’s a natural plant and it has vitamins in the aloe gel itself. You can actually break off the plant and rub it directly on your skin and now you can buy aloe gel as a product at the store. Either one of those, I always recommend the aloe plant because an aloe plant in your house is like an oxygen bomb. It releases a lot of oxygen into the air. It absorbs a lot of toxins from the air and then that plant if you ever have a sunburn or a skin issue, you can break it off and occasionally someone will have an aloe allergy so caution to people that do, but for the most part, it’s very soothing and protective for the skin. Healing for the skin.

Sam Craft: What did you do about, I know we’re still kind of back and forth with sunburns but I think that’s the most common thing I think people think of when they think sun poisoning. To me it is anyway. When you get a sunburn that’s got a really a bad, a second or third degree. There’s bubbling or a blister.

Cindy Weston: A blister.

Sam Craft: Blister, that’s the word. And maybe some peeling. At that point, is it treatable? Or do you need to go see somebody?

Cindy Weston: If you have a blister with a sunburn, it’s a second degree burn. It’s a little more serious. A typical sunburn would be considered a first degree burn. It’s kind of the epidermal layer. By the time you get to a second degree burn, it’s a little deeper into the thickness of the skin. It’s recommended don’t pop that blister. That blister is a protective covering for the skin. It’s like a protective dressing so don’t pop it. Let it just stay there. Try to protect it.

But it is a more serious burn and especially if you have a large part of your body with a second degree burn. That’s going to create a more systemic inflammatory immune response because you’ve damaged a significant portion of your skin, the largest organ in your body. It may require medical attention at that point if you have a significant, just a single blister, you can probably treat that and take care of it but if you have blisters all over your body from exposure to the sun, that’s pretty significant.

Sam Craft: Infection would be a big cause of concern too I think.

Cindy Weston: After, in the healing process, those can get infected and those would have symptoms of drainage from that would and sometimes odor.

Sam Craft: All the nasty things that comes with infection.

Cindy Weston: More redness, fever.

Mary Leigh Meyer: This hurts my soul.

Cindy Weston: Yeah, yeah.

Mary Leigh Meyer: And also getting a burn of that nature, my brother got this huge burn on his back one year and even when he put a shirt on to go to work the next day.

Cindy Weston: It hurts.

Sam Craft: It’s awful.

Mary Leigh Meyer: Oh Lord.

Sam Craft: It just stays with you. It doesn’t go away.

Cindy Weston: Yeah, hydration is key after any type of sunburn. Your body’s depleted. And if you think of a burn, burn treatment, if we somebody that was burnt from a fire or a chemical and they come in and their skin has been damaged in that way, our first treatment is hydration. We give them IV fluids to rehydrate quickly. We give a lot of fluids because the skin is the protective layer for the fluids in your body and an adult is 60 percent water. We’re just big balls of water. And a baby is 80 percent water so they’re really big balls of water.

The younger you are, the more hydration you need after exposure.

Sam Craft: Is the skin literally just dried out? Is that part of it?

Cindy Weston: What the skin does is help keep that moisture, that fluid inside of your body and when you damage that ability of the body to keep the fluid in, you’re losing fluid whether you see it or not. It’s an insensible loss of that fluid. You need that for your cells to stay healthy in your body.

Mary Leigh Meyer: What about topical lotions? I know aloe’s in a lotion now but what about just lotion you can grab from the store? Would that help? Or is that just a temporary relief? Or is that an actual semi-long-term relief?

Cindy Weston: It’s recommended after sun exposure, or dryness or injury to the skin, to moisturize it. There are a lot of good products that will moisturize. We know that aloe’s a natural product that’ll moisturize.

Sam Craft: What about sun tanning lotion? How does that work? Is that the same premise?

Mary Leigh Meyer: Oh, the oils?

Sam Craft: Yeah. I feel like it’s you see guys and they get all oiled up or ladies, whoever, and it feels like it just attracts the sun more than repellent. Is that true? How does that work?

Cindy Weston: Those products were really popular when I was growing up.

Sam Craft: 80s, 90s. I’m there with you. I understand. That’s what everybody did. You wanted to get a tan, you went down there. You looked like you were rubbing up some kind of cooking oil.

Cindy Weston: And they smell great, like coconut. They have this great tropical smell to them. I know. That’s why we see I think an increased incidence of skin cancer today is because of those products being popular and we know more. We know the long term impact of exposure to the sun and like I said, it catches up with you with time.

Mary Leigh Meyer: In addition to sunburns, what else can happen in the sun?

Cindy Weston: Things that you worry about would be heat exhaustion which you brought up earlier. Heat exhaustion is really when you’ve been out into the sun and you’re leading into dehydration. You’ll a lot of time see that profuse sweating. You’ll see sometimes nausea, dizziness, a headache, feeling really weak and fatigued. Those are signs of heat exhaustion. That means you’re getting too much sun. You need to hydrate and get out of the sun. Maybe do a cool shower, a tepid shower, where it’s not really hot, not really too cold to sort of cool your body temperature down.

Mary Leigh Meyer: And when do you need to see somebody about that? When are those symptoms bad enough that you need to go see a healthcare provider?

Cindy Weston: It’d be if those symptoms aren’t correcting with the treatment that you’re doing with hydration and cool shower and you’re not recovering from those with heat exhaustion. Typically just getting in and out of the sun will help you recover. A heat stroke is really life threatening and that’s the next stage past heat exhaustion.

Sam Craft: I was going to ask, where’s the line between exhaustion and stroke? Because I think a lot of people including me, don’t really know the difference but stroke is such a scary word.

Mary Leigh Meyer: Yeah, some kids die. You always hear those horror stories.

Sam Craft: In athletic practices and two-a-days and that kind of stuff every year. What are your stroke symptoms compared to your exhaustion. Because I think it sounds like probably the same kind of stuff, right?

Cindy Weston: Well lot of times there are the symptoms of heat exhaustion before heat stroke. If you’re seeing the signs of heat exhaustion, you need to get in. Get out of the sun, hydrate, get a cool shower and rest. Ibuprofen can help or an anti-inflammatory but out of the sun. Out of the heat and start cooling the body down.

Sam Craft: What exactly happens when you have a heat stroke? Does your body just shut down?

Cindy Weston: It is an extreme past heat exhaustion. You’ll see things like an altered level of consciousness or somebody will appear a little confused. They could even have slurred speech just like a stroke. Very weak to the point that they’re staggering. Their gait’s not steady.

Sam Craft: It’s very, very noticeable. It’s not something you’re going to be like, I think I’m having a heat stroke. But it’s very serious.

Cindy Weston: Sometimes the symptoms can be subtle but it’s a change in that person. The danger is if somebody’s by themselves and so I think about people that work outside a lot for their job and they’re not necessarily staying well hydrated or maybe they’re on other medications that just put them at higher risk for heat exhaustion or heat stroke. We know that certain antibiotics increase your sensitivity to the sun. Antidepressants, diuretics, some heart medications increase sensitivity to the sun and risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

If they see themselves profusely sweating. We worry when you’ve had that episode of profuse sweating and then you’re not sweating at all. That’s a severe warning sign. Well it’s a sign that you’ve become so dehydrated.

Sam Craft: You’ve just run out of fluids.

Cindy Weston: You’re running out of fluids and those would be reasons to seek medical attention.

Sam Craft: At very worst get around somebody in case you fell out.

Cindy Weston: Oral hydration is always going to be the best. If someone can drink fluids and keep fluids down, that’s going to be the best but someone who’s having a lot of nausea and vomiting during those attempts to rehydrate, they need to seek medical attention because they may need IV or parental rehydration.

Mary Leigh Meyer: Those are pretty visible signs. That’s what it’s easy for parents to keep any eye out for those types of stuff.

Cindy Weston: Yeah, seizures also can happen with a heat stroke. Of course if we see a seizure, we’re going to for sure seek medical attention.

Sam Craft: Something has definitely changed at that point.

Cindy Weston: That’s emergent.

Mary Leigh Meyer: What else? Anything else?

Sam Craft: From the big ball of fire trying to kill us every day in our lives, something else that it could try to harm us?

Mary Leigh Meyer: But we need it. It sustains life.

Sam Craft: We got to have it.

Mary Leigh Meyer: It sustains life and apparently sustains happiness but it can take it away like that.

Sam Craft: Any other big things? We’ve talked about sunburns and heat strokes and heat exhaustion, dehydration. What other little maybe everyday things that you think our audience should be aware of that’s out there?

Cindy Weston: The sun is good. We all need sun exposure. I think the key thing is knowing that you’re wearing appropriate clothing. Clothing that will help protect your skin and keep you covered but that breathable and help keep you cool. That you’re staying well hydrated when you’re out in the sun and that you’re using sunscreen to cover those areas that are exposed to the sun.

Everyone knows their complexion and their risk but it doesn’t matter about complexion. People think, well if I’m a little bit darker toned, maybe I can get by with more sun exposure and that’s just not true. Sunburns can happen with any complexion and sunscreen’s important for everyone for protection.

Mary Leigh Meyer: And that reapplication is important too. I feel like one time application of sunscreen isn’t enough. You have to use it properly.

Cindy Weston: Absolutely. Remembering that 20 to 30 minutes before you go outside. Plan ahead and if you know you’re going to be outside, just put it on first thing in the morning and get good coverage and then reapply every two hours or if you’re getting wet or sweating a lot, make sure that you’re covered.

Mary Leigh Meyer: Hopefully our listeners learned a little bit today. There’s a lot of things that can happen. A lot of good things that can happen but then the bad things can be really bad in the sun.

Cindy Weston: If anyone does get a sunburn, stay well hydrated afterwards. Take ibuprofen, get some rest. Do a cool shower to help cool down the body temperature and help the skin heal.

Mary Leigh Meyer: Thanks for coming over, educating us as always.

Sam Craft: Yes, thank you for coming.

Cindy Weston: Thank you. Thank you. You guys are great.

Sam Craft: Appreciate it. We enjoy having you.

Cindy Weston: You’re covering such important topics.

Mary Leigh Meyer: This has been another episode of Sounds Like Health. Thank you everybody for listening. Remember to have fun in the sun but remember to use sunscreen and watch out for the warning signs.