If you have lupus, sun exposure can trigger symptoms such as skin rashes, itching, burning, joint pain, weakness, and fatigue. In some cases, it can even cause organ damage.

Phototoxicity is a dangerous reaction that can happen when light and certain chemicals combine.

People with lupus are particularly susceptible because they experience greater sensitivity to sunlight. If you have lupus, protecting yourself from sun exposure is an essential part of managing your condition.

Ultraviolet (UV) light is a type of invisible radiation that’s present in sunlight. Exposure to it can damage and even destroy your skin cells.

In healthy people, the body efficiently removes these damaged cells and heals any resulting sunburn or irritation. But if you have lupus, this process doesn’t work as well. For this reason, UV light can trigger lupus flare ups.

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, 40-70% of people living with lupus will experience flare ups from exposure to UV rays from either sunlight or artificial light.

There are three types of UV light: UVA, UVB, and UVC. Research shows UVB rays can cause problems in people with lupus, triggering symptoms such as:

  • lupus rash or lesions
  • fatigue or weakness
  • joint pain
  • tingling or numbness

This means that exposure to sunlight can not only trigger skin symptoms, but also systemic symptoms, affecting the entire body.

The following tips can help you protect yourself from lupus flare ups caused by sun exposure.

Wear protective clothing

To protect yourself from UV radiation, wear sun-protective clothing that reflects or absorbs sunlight before it reaches your skin.

UV rays can pass through thin, light-colored, and loosely woven fabrics. For optimum protection, wear tightly woven, dark-colored, long-sleeved shirts and pants, as well as wide-brimmed hats.

Certain types of fibers also provide more protection than others. Unbleached cotton absorbs UV rays, while polyester and silk with a high sheen reflect UV radiation. You can also find high-tech “sun protective clothing” designed to block UV rays at many sporting goods stores.

Sun-protective clothing has a rating known as its ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). This denotes the amount of UV radiation absorbed by its fabric. Look for clothing that’s labeled with a UPF of 30-50 or higher.

Sun-protective clothing can lose its effectiveness when it’s stretched, weathered, or over-washed. Be sure to take proper care of it and replace it when it wears out.

Choose the right sunscreen

In addition to wearing protective clothing, cover exposed skin with sunscreen. Look for sunscreen that:

  • has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more
  • provides broad spectrum protection, blocking UVB and UVA rays
  • contains physical blockers, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
  • is hypoallergenic

Test the sunscreen on a patch of your skin to check for signs of sensitivity or allergic reactions. Store it in a cool place and throw it away after a year. Sunscreen can become less effective over time and when it’s exposed to heat.

Avoid common sunscreen mistakes

Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you head outside and then reapply every two hours as long as you’re outdoors. Make sure to cover easy-to-miss areas, such as:

  • the middle of your back
  • the sides of your neck
  • your temples
  • your ears

If you apply it too thinly, your sunscreen won’t provide the protection indicated by its SPF rating. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, you should use about an ounce of sunscreen — or a shot glass full — to cover your body.

Stay in the shade

To protect yourself from UV radiation, avoid sunlight when it’s strongest. For example, stay indoors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you must go outside, stay in the shade provided by trees, an umbrella, or an awning. Installing sun shields on your house and car windows can also provide the UV protection you need.

Ask your doctor about medications

Phototoxic reactions can also occur when your skin is exposed to sunlight after you take certain medications. These medications include certain:

  • antibiotics, such as azithromycin
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as diclofenac
  • diuretics
  • oral diabetes drugs
  • cardiac medications

Talk with your doctor to learn if any medications you take might cause problems.

Don’t forget about artificial light

It’s not just sunlight you need to guard yourself against. For people with lupus, artificial light with UV rays can also cause problems. Sources of this light include:

  • fluorescent lighting
  • photocopiers
  • tanning beds

Limit or avoid exposure to these artificial light sources. This includes covering fluorescent and halogen bulbs with light shields or UV ray filters with readings of 380-400 nanometers. Avoid tanning beds altogether.

How long in the sun does it take lupus to flare up?

You can get lupus flare ups from as soon as a few hours after sun exposure to even a few days after. In some cases, the lesions can last weeks and even months.

Can I still get side effects from the sun in the winter?

Although it may be cold in the winter, you’re still being exposed to sun rays while outdoors. These rays may not be as strong, but they can still cause damage, especially if you have lupus. It’s a good idea to wear sunscreen outdoors regardless of the season.

For those with lupus, being in the sun can lead to symptoms like skin rashes, itching, burning, joint pain, weakness, and fatigue. In certain cases, it can also result in damage to internal organs.

If you’re living with lupus, minimizing sun exposure and protecting yourself from the sun while outdoors is crucial for managing the condition.

For more helpful information about treating and managing lupus, visit the links below.