Photosensitivity: Types, Causes, and Treatments

Photo by: Bigstockphoto
Photo by: Bigstockphoto

Photosensitivity is a type of condition wherein a person develops abnormally high sensitivity to sunlight. Generally, we are all at risk of getting sunburns when we are exposed to sunlight for an extended period. However, a photosensitive person will develop severe burns and skin rashes even when exposed to the sun for only a limited period of time.

Types of Photosensitivity

The skin’s sensitivity to the sun is caused by two types of photosensitive reactions: phototoxic and photoallergic.

Phototoxic Reaction

This type of allergic reaction is caused by substances in the body that react to ultraviolet rays from the sun. These substances could be obtained by taking medication like doxycycline and tetracycline. Individuals who are exposed to the sun while taking doxycycline and tetracycline are found to develop severe sun burn or skin rashes 24 hours after being exposed to the sun.

Photoallergic Reaction

This type of reaction may also develop as a side effect of some medication. The substances that react to the sun could be found in cosmetics products and even sun blocks. Unlike phototoxic reaction wherein inflammation and rashes develop within several hours, symptoms of photosensitivity manifest itself within a few days after exposure to the sun.

Photosensitivity Symptoms

Photosensitivity symptoms will vary from severe to mild; the common symptom is sunburn or skin rashes. The rashes won’t be itchy unlike hives. In severe cases of photosensitivity, blisters will develop together with sunburn. Weeping of the skin is another symptom of severe photosensitivity. As for the length of time it takes to develop allergic reaction to sunlight, it will also vary from just a few hours to days after sun exposure.

Causes of Photosensitivity

Photosensitivity could be caused by an underlying medical condition, medications, and chemicals. Below are the most common causes of this condition:


Lupus is a type of autoimmune disease wherein the body’s immune system becomes extremely reactive and attacks normal connective tissues, destroying organs in the process. Symptoms of lupus include swelling; inflammation; pain in the joints and skin; and damage to the lungs, heart, and blood. Photosensitivity may develop after certain areas of the body develop connective tissue damage.

Polymorphous Light Eruption

This condition is characterized as a skin disorder wherein sunlight causes rashes, itchiness, and recurrent reactions to exposure to sunlight. As the condition progresses, a person suffering from polymorphous light eruption will develop hypersensitivity to the sun but extended exposure to sunlight could also help build tolerance to it. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, women are more likely to develop polymorphous light eruption than men.

Photosensitivity Treatment

Treatment for photosensitivity includes minimized exposure to the sun and avoiding any chemical that may trigger or worsen the symptoms. Common medication for this condition includes some forms of chemotherapy. In mild cases of photosensitivity, over-the-counter drugs like corticosteroid are used to soothe pain and inflammation.

Individuals who are suffering from this condition are advised to use sunscreen every time they go outside. Covering exposed skin with clothing will also help prevent allergic reaction. You can use long-sleeve shirts, hats, or sunglasses when going out.