Sun-Sensitive Drugs (Photosensitivity to Drugs)

  • Medical Author:
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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How is sun sensitivity (photosensitivity) diagnosed?

The diagnosis is mainly made by a thorough history, examination, and review of the medications and duration of exposure to sun. It is important to ask when the medication was started and for how long the symptoms persisted.

There are no diagnostic tests available, although a photo-patch test may be performed. This test is typically performed by a dermatologist (a doctor who specializes in diseases of the skin) by shining light onto different areas of the skin to see how long it will take for the light to cause redness. This test may be useful in evaluating photosensitivity to topical medications causing a photoallergic response. In cases of phototoxicity reactions, this test is generally not useful.

What is the treatment for a photosensitizing drug reaction?

Recognizing and discontinuing the photosensitizing drug is the most important step in treatment. In general, the usual sunburn prevention methods such as the use of sunscreens and avoidance of prolonged exposure to sun are important steps to take. Keeping the area of skin eruption moist and applying wet dressings may help relieve the symptoms. The reaction may last up to a few weeks.

Topical steroid creams may be helpful in treating the redness, and antihistamines are generally helpful in minimizing the itching. In severe cases, a short course (10-14 days) of oral steroids, under the direction of a doctor, may be used.

Is anyone taking these drugs at risk for developing sunburn?

Not everyone taking any of these drugs will develop photosensitivity reactions. Certain individuals have more susceptibility to these medications than others.

Can any foods or plants cause sun sensitivity (photosensitivity) reactions?

Some vegetables and plants may cause sun sensitivity if they come into contact with the skin. Mango peel, lime juice, parsnips, or celery, for example, may cause temporary discoloration (darkening) of the skin contact area when in the sun. Common phototoxic fruits and vegetables include:

  • Lime
  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Figs
  • Parsley
  • Parsnips
  • Mango peel
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/2/2015

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