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What is photosensitivity?

Photosensitivity is an extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and other light sources. Most people are at risk of developing sunburn during long exposure to sunlight.

Exposure to UV rays from the sun can also lead to skin damage and skin cancer. People who are photosensitive may develop skin rashes or burns, even after limited exposure to the sun.

What are the types of photosensitivity?

Some chemicals contribute to sensitivity to the sun. These can cause two different types of photosensitive reactions: phototoxic and photoallergic.


Phototoxic reactions are caused when a new chemical in your body interacts with UV rays from the sun. Medications like doxycycline and tetracycline, for example, are the most common cause of this type of reaction.

The result is a skin rash that looks like a severe sunburn, which usually develops within 24 hours of exposure to the sun.


Photoallergic reactions can also develop as a side effect of some medications. They can also develop because of chemicals found in beauty products and sunscreen.

These types of reactions to the sun tend to take a few days for a rash to develop after sun exposure.

What are the symptoms of photosensitivity?

Symptoms of photosensitivity vary from mild to severe. The most common symptom is an exaggerated skin rash or sunburn. Rashes may or may not cause itching. In some cases, a sunburn can be so severe that blistering develops. Weeping of the skin and peeling can also occur in severe cases.

The amount of sun exposure required for a reaction varies greatly. For some people, very little sun exposure can cause a rash or burn, while for others, prolonged exposure will bring about a reaction.

What causes photosensitivity?

Photosensitivity is a common side effect of various medications. These can include certain antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, and diuretics.

Some medical conditions can also cause photosensitivity. These include:

Lupus erythematous

Lupus is a connective tissue disease. Red patches, lumps, and purple spots can develop on areas of the skin exposed to the sun.

Polymorphous light eruption

People with this condition can develop an itchy rash when they are exposed to the sun. As sun exposure continues and UV tolerance increases, symptoms generally appear less often. This condition usually occurs in women.

Actinic prurigo

People with this condition may develop red bumps after sun exposure, which can turn into scaly patches. This disorder can occur year round, even in winter when people tend to have less exposure to the sun.

How is photosensitivity diagnosed?

A diagnosis is made after a complete review of your medical history and the medications you are currently taking. Doctors usually pay attention to the development and patterns of rashes in relation to exposure to the sun. In some cases, a skin biopsy may be recommended.

How is photosensitivity treated?

When a skin reaction has already developed, treatments work to reduce discomfort and skin inflammation. Over-the-counter pain medications can relieve pain and corticosteroid cream may be prescribed to decrease inflammation.

Some chemicals can cause photosensitivity and should be avoided. These chemicals can be found in some medications and products, such as some forms of chemotherapy. However, sometimes it’s not possible to avoid taking these medications.

How is photosensitivity prevented?

The best way to prevent symptoms of photosensitivity is to limit the amount of time you spend in the sun. People who are photosensitive should always use sunscreen when outside.

Covering and protecting your skin may also help prevent a reaction. People who are photosensitive can reduce symptoms by wearing hats, sunglasses, and long sleeves when outside.

These simple tips can help protect your skin and help you live a healthy life.

Content licensed from:

Written by: MaryAnn DePietro
Medically reviewed on: Aug 05, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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