Photosensitivity

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

What is it?

Photosensitivity is when the skin becomes more sensitive and more prone to burns from any type of light. Someone who is photosensitive will get a sunburn more easily and more severely than other people. Areas of the skin not exposed to the sun may also be affected. Photosensitivity can also cause lesions or a rash on the skin that was exposed to sunlight.

Certain chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy treatments can cause photosensitivity. Other medications that can cause photosensitivity are certain antibiotics, some medications to control nausea and vomiting, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. People have varying degrees of sensitivity to sun exposure. Even if you have never been sensitive to the sun, you may be at risk now.

Chemotherapy-induced photosensitivity does not last forever, but it may take many weeks for it to go away. Radiation-induced photosensitivity is permanent. Skin that was in the radiation treatment fields will always be more sensitive to the sun.

How is it managed?

The best management of photosensitivity is to limit your exposure to the sun. What you can do if you are in the sun:

  • Liberally apply sun screen/sun block. Areas that have lost hair, such as eyebrows, require sunscreen as well. Follow the package instructions as to how often to reapply.
  • Use sunscreen lip block.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, a hat, and sunglasses.
  • Avoid perfumes and other chemical products on your skin as this may make your skin more sensitive.

If you do get a sunburn, cool compresses on the burned areas will cool the skin and soothe pain. Your care provider may also prescribe pain medication and topical medications to relieve itching or burning.

When should I contact my care team? 

  • A severe sunburn that blisters or causes open sores.
  • A sunburn with severe pain.

References

DePietro M. Healthline. Photosensitivity. 2018. 

Skin Cancer Foundation. The Photosensitivity Report

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