What is Photosensitivity?
Photosensitivity is when an individual has an extreme sensitivity to the sun (ultraviolet rays) and other sources of light. This sensitivity can lead to frequent and intense skin rashes and burns. Photosensitivity is also known as sun allergy, or simply as sun sensitivity or sensitivity to the sun. People who have photosensitivity are ultimately more prone to developing skin cancer and other types of skin damage. Photosensitivity treatment is possible, as is avoiding the symptoms of photosensitivity in the first place.
Types of photosensitivity:
- Photoallergic photosensitivity: This is when an individual develops side effects from various medications that cause the skin to be more prone to sunburn and rash. Triggered by chemicals in various sunscreen lotions and beauty products, it only takes a few days of sun exposure for a person who is photoallergic to develop a burn or rash.
- Phototoxic photosensitivity: People who are phototoxic develop a severe sunburn in a short amount of time after ingesting various prescription medications like tetracycline or doxycycline and spending time in the sun. The mix of these prescription medications and ultraviolet light is the trigger for the extreme sunburn (phototoxicity).
Classifications of photosensitivity:
- Exogenous photodermatoses: This is when a photosensitive reaction is caused by an outside photosensitizer. This includes medication-induced photosensitivity, photocontact dermatitis (brought on by cosmetics, fragrances, etc.), and renal insufficiency caused by medications.
- Primary photodermatoses: This is when photosensitivity is brought on by a disease such as solar urticaria, polymorphic light eruption, actinic prurigo, juvenile spring eruption, and other conditions.
- Metabolic photodermatoses: This is when the individual’s metabolic system is unable to operate efficiently. The most common of these include porphyria: a buildup of porphyrins in the skin.
- Genetic photodermatoses: A very rare condition, sometimes photosensitivity is caused by genetic disorders that include Bloom syndrome, xeroderma pigmentosum, Rothmund-Thomson syndrome, and others.
- Photoexacerbated dermatoses: Associated with various autoimmune and connective tissue disorders including psoriasis, Darier disease, lupus, rosacea, atopic dermatitis, and others.
An individual may fall anywhere between mild and severe on the photosensitivity spectrum. This means that they may need very little time in the sun to develop a rash, or a longer period of time than normal. The severity of the sunburn or rash also varies by individual.
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Symptoms might include:
- Weeping (exuding a clear liquid that dries to form a crust) at the site of the rash or burn
- Blistering and peeling
- The existence of an intense burn or rash after exposure to sunlight or another light source (the most common symptom)
Actual clinical features of photosensitivity depend largely on the type of photodermatitis:
- Polymorphic light eruption (PMLE) sufferers develop rashes on the front of the neck, arms, and upper chest, but not the face.
- Juvenile spring eruption sufferers develop rashes on the tops of the ears and nowhere else.
- Photodermatoses can be brought on even by artificial light sources such as fluorescent lighting.
Other signs of photosensitivity:
- Upper eyelids are not affected.
- Furrows on neck and face are not affected.
- Skin that is covered by hair is not affected.
- Reactions are exacerbated in the summer months.
- The spaces between fingers are not affected.
- Behind the ears, under the chin, and under the nose are not affected.
- There is an obvious boundary between affected skin and skin covered by clothing or jewelry.
Who is Affected
People who take various medications that make them hypersensitive to ultraviolet rays are at risk of developing sun sensitivity.
Some medications known to cause photosensitivity include:
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Chemotherapy drugs
- Antifungal drugs
- Acne treatment medications
- Heart medications
- Antipsychotic medications
- Antimalarial drugs
Other various over-the-counter products can also trigger photosensitivity events including:
- Sunscreen lotion
- Perfumes and colognes
People with lighter skin and lighter eyes are more prone to photosensitivity, and the disease occurs in equal numbers in women and men. Sun sensitivity can occur at any age and in any race.
Photosensitivity is often caused when there is an abnormal reaction between a reactive compound (medication, for example) and sunlight. The most common ultraviolet radiation that people tend to be allergic to is long-wave UVA radiation, although individuals may also be allergic to UVB and UVC light. Even though UVA light is lower energy than other types of ultraviolet light, it is vastly more prevalent at the Earth’s surface and can penetrate more deeply into the skin, as well as easily pass through regular glass that isn’t specially treated or tinted.
Certain medical conditions exist that can also cause photosensitivity. These include:
Polymorphous Light Eruption
Generally occurring in women, people with PLE (also called PMLE: polymorphic light eruption) can develop an itchy rash. However, symptoms decrease as tolerance increases and exposure continues.
Lupus attacks connective tissue and, for people with lupus, exposure to sunlight can cause them to develop purple spots, lumps, and red patches.
After exposure to the sun, people with actinic prurigo develop red bumps on the skin which turn into scaly patches. This can happen at any time of the year, even during the winter when the intensity of ultraviolet rays is lower.
How to Diagnose Photosensitivity
History: Generally, diagnosing photosensitivity is based on your history of developing skin issues after exposure to sunlight.
Phototests: Tests may be performed in which your skin is exposed to artificial light to see if, and how quickly, a rash or burn develops in an effort to reproduce the occurrence of rashes and burns.
Photopatch: Tests may also be performed in which a patch that contains photosensitizing material is attached to your back. After two days the patch is removed and light is shined on the area. The result/reaction is observed two days later.
How to Treat Photosensitivity
Since photosensitivity often involves a mix of exposure to sunlight and prescription medication, photosensitivity treatment requires blocking UV radiation via sunscreen lotion, staying out of the sun when UV rays are most intense, and wearing hats and long-sleeved clothing. If applicable, treating photosensitivity may also require addressing your underlying medical condition.
How to Prevent Photosensitivity
Basic preventive measures
People who are photosensitive need to take active measures toward preventing sun exposure to keep their skin healthy. The best method of prevention is simply to stay out of the sun as much as possible. If this is impossible, wearing protective clothing that covers your arms, chest, back, and legs is recommended. Hats and sunglasses (to protect your eyes) are also good means of protection, as is wearing a non-toxic sunscreen lotion.
Other actions you can take to minimize photosensitivity reactions include:
- Wearing dark-colored and tightly woven clothing
- Taking Vitamin D supplements or cod liver oil regularly (along with other foods high in Vitamin D) so that you don’t have to rely on sun exposure for your Vitamin D requirements
- Taking action to protect your skin even when indoors or inside a car
- Installing UVR-absorbing material (like window tint) to car windows and house windows
- Limiting time outdoors to early morning or later in the evening
- Wearing gloves to protect the skin on your hands
- Wearing a clear, plastic mask on your face to protect facial burns and rashes
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Prognosis/Outlook for Photosensitivity
For people living with photosensitivity, the outlook largely depends on what type of underlying condition accompanies the disorder. Treatment of the underlying disorder, as well as where you live, are factors in overcoming the disease.
People with chronic photosensitivity may gravitate toward finding night work and sleeping during the day, while others just deal with the unsightly and uncomfortable rash.
Photosensitivity can lead to social isolation due to an inability or unwillingness to expose your skin to the sun. Social isolation can, in turn, lead to depression and people with photosensitivity should stay cognizant of this and seek help if needed.
Permanent scarring can occur with some types of photosensitivity and care should be taken to try to prevent and relieve it.
If you are affected by photosensitivity, discussing it with a physician is recommended.
Photosensitivity is a condition that causes an adverse reaction to sun exposure. It can be caused by medication or an underlying medical condition, or may even be related to lowered immune system function.
Even though photosensitivity occurs in both males and females of any age and race, people with lighter skin and lighter eyes are especially prone to developing it.
There are two types of photosensitivity reactions: photoallergy and phototoxicity. Phototoxicity is more intense and dangerous.
Symptoms of photosensitivity include skin damage immediately after or within a couple days of sun exposure that may involve rashes, burns, weeping of the skin, itching, blistering, and/or peeling.
In addition to genetics and the environment, photosensitivity can also be brought on by various medications including antibiotics, acne medicine, antifungal medication, heart disease medication, chemotherapy drugs, anti-anxiety medications, and others.
Various illnesses that can cause photosensitivity include lupus, polymorphous light eruption, actinic prurigo, and others.
Diagnosing photosensitivity involves researching your medical history and administering tests; these include phototests (involving exposure to artificial light) and photopatch tests (involving exposure to patches with photosensitizing medications).
Photosensitivity is treated by staying out of the sun during peak ultraviolet hours and in general limiting your exposure to the sun with hats, clothing, and sunscreen lotions. Sunsafe Rx capsules (a nutritional supplement taken orally) also offer health benefits, as the natural ingredients in Sunsafe Rx have been clinically shown to aid the body’s natural ability to support itself during environmental exposure.
Other remedies involve treating the underlying disease that is causing the sun sensitivity.
Prevention is similar to photosensitivity treatment in that avoiding sun exposure, wearing protective clothing and sunscreen lotion, and taking a daily protection capsule can all help.
Living with photosensitivity is possible for people who suffer continually by simply dealing with rashes as they develop and/or being extremely vigilant in avoiding sun exposure.