A sunburn is a burn that forms when your skin is exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight. Other forms of UV light, like tanning beds, can also cause sunburns.

About a third of people in the United States experience at least one sunburn each year.

The risk of getting a sunburn increases with the length of time and strength of sun exposure. Mild sunburns tend to cause symptoms like skin redness and irritation.

Severe sunburns are sometimes referred to using the term “sun poisoning.” Sun poisoning is not a medical condition, but it can cause severe dehydration that results in flu-like symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting.

Nasal congestion is not typical of sunburns or sun poisoning.

Yet dehydration can theoretically contribute to the thickening of mucus, with subsequent blockage of the nasal passages. This could contribute to the development of nasal congestion.

Keep reading to learn more about potential symptoms of sunburns and whether they can cause congestion.

Medical emergency

Severe sunburns and heat illness need to be treated in the hospital. Seek emergency medical attention if you or somebody you’re with:

  • has a very high fever
  • is unconscious
  • faints
  • vomits

Sunburns can range from mild to severe. Severe sunburns, sometimes called sun poisoning, can cause blisters, large amounts of pain, and dehydration.

Dehydration can cause many of your body systems to stop working as they should and can lead to many symptoms. Theoretically, dehydration associated with a severe sunburn may lead to nasal congestion due to drying of your nasal passages and thickening of your mucus.

It’s highly unlikely that sunburn would cause only congestion without other dehydration symptoms. Symptoms that are more typical of dehydration include:

Sun poisoning isn’t a real form of poisoning, like when you ingest toxic chemicals. It’s also not a recognized medical condition by itself and is a colloquial name that refers to a severe sunburn.

Sun poisoning is caused by prolonged exposure to UV radiation. The primary source of UV radiation is the sun. Tanning beds also expose you to this type of radiation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends seeking medical attention if you develop:

  • a sunburn that covers more than 15% of your body
  • signs of dehydration
  • a fever above 101°F (38.3°C)
  • extreme pain for more than 48 hours

Nasal congestion can be treated with a combination of home remedies and medications, depending on the underlying cause. Treatment options for nasal congestion include:

  • Using decongestants: Decongestants can reduce swelling and irritation in your nasal passages. Many are available over the counter.
  • Taking antihistamines: If a doctor suspects that allergies may be playing a role in your congestion, they may recommend antihistamines. Antihistamines block the release of molecules called histamines that trigger allergy symptoms.
  • Showering: Breathing in the steam from your shower may help relieve sinus pain and pressure, per the CDC.
  • Staying hydrated: Drinking plenty of fluids may help thin out the mucus in your sinuses.
  • Placing a warm compress over your nose and forehead: A warm compress may help relieve pressure in your sinuses.

Mild sunburns can usually be treated with home remedies, such as:

  • Taking pain relievers: Pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen can help reduce pain, headache, and fever.
  • Staying hydrated: Drinking plenty of water may help counteract dehydration.
  • Using topical creams and aloe: Applying creams or aloe may help cool your burns and provide you with pain relief.
  • Avoiding sun: It’s important to avoid sunlight until your burn heals to prevent it from getting worse.

A doctor may recommend hydrocortisone cream for a few days to reduce skin inflammation for severe burns, according to NHS Inform. Very severe sunburns may require special burn cream and wound dressings applied by a doctor or in an emergency room treatment.

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about sunburns.

Can sunburn or sun poisoning cause cold or flu symptoms?

Prolonged sun and heat exposure can cause some symptoms that mimic those of a cold or flu. According to 2020 research, these symptoms include:

Can sunburn or sun poisoning make it hard to breathe or cause other congestion issues?

Sunburns can lead to dehydration, which may dry out your mouth and nasal passages and make it difficult to breathe. Severe dehydration can decrease the amount of blood that circulates through your body and may lead to rapid breathing or heart rate.

When should you contact a doctor for a sunburn?

According to experts, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention if you or somebody you’re with develops:

Severe sunburns can cause dehydration that could theoretically lead to nasal congestion. Dehydration is more likely to cause other symptoms such as persistent thirst, dry mouth, and dark urine.

Severe dehydration may require medical attention. Signs of severe dehydration include rapid breathing, not sweating despite overheating, and headaches.