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Medication and sun: risks and recommendations

Written by: Editors

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Sea, sun, beach... It’s no wonder we enjoy the summer holidays so much. However, summer does come with increasing risks. Some medicines can make the skin more sensitive to UV radiation, which can cause reactions such as skin irritation, itching and severe burning. This article offers expert advice and practical tips on how to minimise these risks and enjoy the sun safely, even when you’re on medication.

What is photosensitivity and how does it affect your skin?

Photosensitivity is when something in the body (such as certain medicines) is making the skin more sensitive to UV light than it otherwise would be, resulting in cellular damage. Photosensitivity may be phototoxic or photoallergic. Phototoxic reactions are common and appear acutely after exposure to the sun, while photoallergic reactions develop more slowly after repeated use of the medication. 

Typical symptoms of phototoxic reactions include red spots, blisters, and a burning sensation, mainly on areas of the skin that have been exposed to the sun. Photoallergic reactions may be accompanied by severe itching, swelling, blisters and pimples, scaling, and eczema-like crusting. These symptoms can also occur in areas of your body that are not exposed to the sun. 

What medicines may cause photosensitivity?

A wide range of medicines can cause photosensitivity, including antibiotics, antidepressants, anti-inflammatories, medications for cardiovascular disease and chemotherapeutics. Even cosmetics and herbal preparations can contain ingredients that may cause photosensitivity. 

Medicines such as adapalene, tacrolimus, isotretinoin, doxycycline, and sulfadiazine are known to make the skin more sensitive to sunlight. 

The impact of skin colour on photosensitivity

Skin pigmentation (skin tone ranging from very light to very dark) can contribute to susceptibility to photosensitivity and the development of skin cancer. People with light skin are much more likely to have their skin damaged by UV rays (and to get skin cancer) than darker-skinned people. The reason for this is that melanin, the pigment responsible for dark skin colour, acts as a natural sunscreen, providing protection against the harmful effects of UV radiation. 

People with light skin tones tend to have less melanin, making them more sensitive to the effects of sunlight. As a result, they are more susceptible to sunburn and have an increased risk of developing skin cancer when exposed to UV radiation. It is important to note that people with dark skin tones are not immune to the harmful effects of UV radiation, but they do have a lower risk of sunburn, skin damage and developing skin cancer than people with fair skin tones. 

How can you protect your skin from sun sensitivity?

If you're taking medication that can make you more sensitive to the sun, there are several things you can do to protect yourself: 

  1. Avoid exposure to the sun: Stay out of the sun. This is particularly important between the hours of 10.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m., when UV light is strongest. 
  2. Wear protective clothing: Wear tightly woven, long-sleeved clothing, a hat or cap, and sunglasses with UV protection to protect your skin and eyes. 
  3. Use sunscreen: Put on broad spectrum sunscreen that filters out both UVA and UVB rays and has a high SPF before you go outside, even on overcast days. 
  4. Check your medicine: Check the package leaflet of your medication for possible side effects related to photosensitivity and discuss any concerns with your pharmacist. 
  5. Seek expert advice: If you’re on medication and notice skin reactions after being exposed to the sun, contact your doctor for advice and treatment, or share your symptoms with Dokteronline via our after care service. Your feedback is important. You may be advised to switch to another type of medicine. 

It is important to be aware of the risks of photosensitivity while taking certain medications and to take proactive measures to protect yourself. Various factors, such as medication use, duration of sunlight exposure and genetic predisposition, can play a role in immune response and the risk of skin cancer due to photosensitivity. In general, photosensitivity can weaken the immune system and may lead to an increased risk of skin damage, including the development of skin cancer, especially with prolonged or repeated exposure to UV radiation. 

Want to know more about this topic or about other health issues? Then visit this page for more information. 

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