If you have lupus, you might be photosensitive -- meaning you have an unusually strong reaction to sunlight. In fact, more than half of all people with lupus are light sensitive. More importantly, 40% to 70% of people with lupus experience an increase in lupus symptoms after being exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays, either from the sun or from artificial light.
Photosensitive people may develop a skin rash, known as a butterfly rash, which appears over the nose and cheeks after sun exposure. Other rashes might look like hives. Sunlight may cause also a lupus flare, resulting in fever, joint pain, or even organ inflammation.
Each person with lupus may have a different level of photosensitivity – just like in the general population. If photosensitivity is a problem for you, here are some ways to protect yourself from the sun:
Be Sun Smart With Lupus
If you are photosensitive, the best rule is to avoid midday and tropical sun entirely. Unfortunately, that’s not always the most practical advice, especially if your job or family situation requires that you spend time outside or near UV rays.
People with lupus should not stay in the sun for extended periods and should make every effort to avoid UV rays outside, which are at their peak between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Don’t be fooled by an overcast day, because clouds don’t filter out all of the sun’s UV rays. Keep track of the time you spend in the sun. It often takes two to three weeks before skin abnormalities occur from sun exposure.
Slather on Sunscreen
Anyone who is out in the sun for more than 20 minutes daily should apply sunscreen, but people who have lupus should be especially vigilant. Sunscreen should have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, preferably higher.
Studies used to suggest that UVB rays -- the rays responsible for burning -- were most dangerous to people with lupus. But more recent research shows that UVA rays -- those responsible for wrinkling the skin -- can also aggravate lupus. With that in mind, you should look for broad-spectrum protection sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
Apply sunscreen liberally: It takes at least 1 ounce of sunscreen to cover your entire body. Remember to reapply frequently. Sweat, water, contact, and clothing can all rub sunscreen off. People often forget to apply sunscreen to their necks, backs, and ears, all of which are commonly affected by photosensitivity related to lupus.
Cover Up Your Skin to Avoid Lupus Rash
Because it is not always possible to avoid the sun entirely, people with lupus should protect themselves with clothing too. Rashes caused by photosensitivity usually occur on parts of the body that are most often exposed to sun, including the face, neck, ears, and hands. Hats with large brims, along with tightly woven, loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants can help provide maximum coverage from the sun.
People with lupus who work or spend a lot of time outside should consider wearing clothing that has built-in sun protection or using an umbrella made with special fabric designed to block UV rays. If you are fair-skinned and have light eyes and light hair, you should be even more careful when exposed to UV rays, because people with those features are more sensitive to the sun and artificial light than people who have darker hair and skin.