Sunburn (Sun Poisoning)

  • 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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Can diseases cause a heightened sensitivity to UV rays?

Yes. Certain disorders place their sufferers at very high risk of skin damage -- including severe sunburn, blisters, and sores -- from exposure to UV radiation. The following is a small sample of afflictions that increase the skin's sensitivity to UV radiation:

  • Albinism: Individuals with classic oculocutaneous albinism lack melanin in their skin and eyes -- hence, the term "oculocutaneous" ("oculo" for eyes, and "cutaneous" for skin). Without the protection of this pigment, their white skin and pink eyes are both highly sensitive to UV and susceptible to the rays' damage.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus: Individuals with lupus can have inflamed tissues, including the skin on the face. The "butterfly" rash (or malar rash) of lupus over the cheeks and nose is extremely sensitive to UV rays. In fact, UV-B and UV-A rays can cause lupus to flare. This butterfly rash and its sensitivity to sun is one of common characteristics of lupus.
  • Porphyrias: The porphyrias are disorders of specific enzymes that are needed for the metabolism of heme (part of the pigment hemoglobin that permits red blood cells to transport oxygen and carbon dioxide). Patients with these disorders manufacture abnormally large amounts of substances called porphyrins. Stimulation of the excess porphyrins in the skin by the UV rays causes damage and scarring of the skin. This skin damage is a prominent feature of several forms of porphyria including porphyria cutanea tarda, hereditary coproporphyria, variegate porphyria, and, particularly, congenital erythropoietic porphyria.
  • Vitiligo: Vitiligo is a relatively common disorder that causes patches of white de-pigmented skin. These patches lack melanin and are extremely sensitive to UV rays.
  • Xeroderma pigmentosum: This disorder appears to result from an inherited hypersensitivity to the cancer-causing (carcinogenic) effects of ultraviolet light. Sunlight causes DNA damage that is normally repaired. Individuals with xeroderma pigmentosum have defective inability to repair the DNA after UV damage. Affected individuals are hundreds of times more vulnerable to developing skin cancer than other people. Their extreme skin photosensitivity predisposes them to pronounced skin damage and scarring and also to the early onset of skin cancer (basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas and malignant melanoma).
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/17/2015

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