Sun goddesses beware. If you notice that you get an itchy, red rash, particularly on your neck, the back of your hands, your arms or your legs, after being out in the sun, you may have a sun allergy. When your immune system recognizes your sun-altered skin and rejects it, your body fights by producing an allergic reaction, usually in the form of a rash. No one knows why some people have this sort of reaction, although you could have inherited the condition.
Your sun allergy could be from a condition called polymorphous light eruption. PMLE affects about 10 to 15 percent of the population, more so in women. With PMLE, after going out in the sun in the spring and summer, you get a rash, which may disappear with repeated sun exposure because you desensitize your skin. Generally, the rash returns each spring or summer.
You can also develop a sun allergy from using a chemical or taking a drug that makes your skin sensitive to the sun. Called photosensitivity, this is not really an allergy, but the results are similar. For example, some ingredients in sunscreens, cosmetics, fragrances or antibiotic ointments, can trigger a reaction similar to an allergic reaction when you go out in the sunlight. Some prescription medications can have the same affect, especially tetracyclines and sulfonamides. Ibuprofen, naproxen, diuretics and some oral contraceptives may also cause a reaction when you go out in the sun.
People at Risk
Sun allergies are more common in Caucasian women under age 30. Native Americans are more at risk for a sun allergy called actinic prurigo, which is a more-intense version of PMLE. Also, if you have another skin condition, such as dermatitis, your chances of having a sun allergy increase. If you have a parent or sibling with a sun allergy, you are more likely to have one, too.
Your doctor can tell you the best way to treat your particular symptoms. Typically, people use over-the-counter or prescription-strength hydrocortisone medications to treat the rash. Your doctor may prescribe oral antihistamines or recommend an over-the-counter version. Your doctor may also prescribe prednisone before you go on summer vacation, for example, to prevent a skin reaction. Some clinics use ultraviolet light therapy to accustom your skin to UV light.
To prevent symptoms of a sun allergy, avoid exposing your skin to the sun or try to limit your exposure when the sun is brightest, which is between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. When the weather starts to warm up, gradually expose yourself to the sun. Wear a hat and protective clothing. You can get clothes that block UV rays. Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 30. Keep your skin moisturized and use calamine lotion and aloe vera to soothe your skin.