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Photosensitivity: What it is and Why it Matters

A woman with brown hair is exhibiting a face of discomfort due to her photosensitive reaction causing her a pink, inflamed fa

Considering the sun is a flaming ball that shines ultraviolet light down upon us from the sky, it’s something to consider when it comes to your skin health.

This is especially true if you’re dealing with photosensitivity.

Photosensitivity occurs when the skin reacts in a particularly sensitive way when exposed to sunlight.

The condition can present in painful ways on the skin and if gone untreated, this increased sensitivity can mean an increased risk of cancer.

With this much at stake, it’s vital to understand what photosensitivity is and how it can be treated.

Your skin will thank you.

Why Does Photosensitivity Happen?

Photosensitivity often occurs in response to exposure to an external substance.
These substances can include medication, plants, and chemicals.

Plants capable of causing photosensitivity include parsley, limes, and celery. These foods contain compounds called furocoumarins that can increase the skin’s sensitivity to UV light. 

Diuretics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen and aspirin, and antifungals are examples of drugs that can cause photosensitivity in some people.

UV rays can stimulate changes to the immune system, causing it to misidentify said drugs as dangerous foreign substances.

As a result, areas of the skin exposed to the sun may have adverse reactions.

These reactions may present as rashes, red bumps, blisters, or lesions that leak fluids.

Phototoxic Reactions

Not all forms of photosensitivity are made equal.

There are two types of photosensitivity: photoallergic and phototoxic. Phototoxic reactions are more common so we’ll start with them first.

Phototoxic reactions usually occur upon consumption of medications or drugs. These substances in turn increase the susceptibility of the skin to the sun. Once this newly sensitive skin is exposed to the sun, it can easily become burned or damaged.

This damage can resemble a rash, sunburn, or general hyperpigmentation. If said reaction occurs within minutes or hours of the consumption of these drugs, you can bet that it’s a phototoxic reaction. 

Most people have a general idea of the relationship between sun exposure and negative reactions on their individual skin. If you find yourself having exaggerated reactions to sun exposure that is less intense than the amount that usually causes burns, that could also be a sign that you’re suffering from photosensitivity.

The reddish-pink patches typically associated with rashes and sunburns may not be the only color changes observed due to photosensitivity.

In rarer cases, the skin can also take on a blue or green tinge. This may be easier to diagnose, however, as such color changes typically come with the consumption of amiodarone, a heart rhythm medication.

Whatever changes occur with phototoxic reactions, remember they’ll only happen to skin exposed to the sun, which in theory should make it easier to diagnose as well.

Photoallergic Reactions

While far less common, these reactions can still be uncomfortable and possibly dangerous if left untreated.

These reactions closely resemble eczema in the sense that they can manifest as itchy, scaly patches. 

Sun-exposed skin isn’t the only kind that can be affected by these reactions.

Even skin that isn’t exposed to the sun can exhibit symptoms of a photoallergic reaction, that’s because these reactions happen due to DNA changes in the body.

Unlike phototoxic reactions, these changes take place one to three days after exposure.

Preventing & Treating Photosensitivity

You can help yourself avoid these reactions by reading warning labels and asking your medical providers for all possible side-effects including photosensitivity.

Consult your dermatologist about possible photosensitivity effects from any topical creams or ointments.

These reactions can be treated the same way you would treat a sunburn: aloe vera, ice, cold water, moisturizer and hydration.

The board-certified dermatologists at SINY Dermatology can help diagnose and treat the full spectrum of skin ailments, including photosensitive reactions.

Give us a call at 800-778-3090 or schedule online at sinyderm.com.


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