Rheumatoid Arthritis Medication: Beware of Sunburn if You Take These Drugs
A side effect of some RA medicine is sun sensitivity. Be extra careful to avoid skin burns, blistering, and the infections that may result.
By Beth Levine
Medically Reviewed by Alexa Meara, MD
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You were only out in the sun briefly, so why did you get a burn? It could be that your medication for rheumatoid arthritis or related syndromes is causing photosensitivity, a reaction of the immune system that can make you more susceptible to sunburns and sun rashes. If you don’t see yours here, be sure to ask your doctor; many other drugs, such as certain antibiotics, can cause photosensitivity, too.
Here are some of the culprits that are used to treat autoimmune disease, listed from most likely to cause a reaction to least:
Drugs That Often Cause Photosensitivity
Drugs That May Cause Photosensitivity
Drugs That Rarely Cause Photosensitivity
Protect Yourself From Photosensitivity and Burns
Everyone has to be careful in the sun, but if you're taking a sun-sensitive drug, you need to be extra rigorous — and these medication side effects are difficult to predict. According to Robert T. Brodell, MD, professor and chair of the department of dermatology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, every drug has a different half-life, which means they each take a different amounts of time to clear your body. Some may be out of your system within 36 hours; others may take more or less time. “It’s not necessarily predictable how long you have to be careful. Ask your doctor, but even then, err on the side of caution,” says Dr. Brodell.
Remember the following to help keep yourself protected:
- SunscreenAlways wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher that covers both UVA and UVB rays. “Try different products to find one that you like — cream, spray, gel, lotion. If you don’t get the one you like, you won’t use it,” says Brodell. Ideally, reapply every three hours, but at least twice a day. If you're sweating a lot or swimming, reapply more often and use a water resistant sunscreen. Also, keep in mind that UV rays can go through clouds and can bounce off snow in winter, so wear sunscreen regardless of the weather.
- SunglassesEyes are sensitive to the sun, too. Buy sunglasses that have UV protection.
- Full Coverage Wear a broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved light colored shirts, and long pants. UV rays can sometimes get through clothing, so you might want to try sun-protective clothing products and accessories specifically recommended for those with sun sensitivity, such as those made by Solumbra.
- No Tanning Booths
- Regular Checkups Make sure to check in yearly with a dermatologist. “There is an increased skin cancer risk with biologics, like TNF inhibitors, and other immunosuppressives, such as azathioprine and cyclosporine,” says Anne R. Bass, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and program director of the Rheumatology Fellowship Program at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. In addition, check yourself all over once a month. If you see something growing or changing, make an appointment.
- Medication Options If you're having a lot of trouble avoiding burns and rashes, ask your doctor about possibly changing medication.
Cool the Burn
- If you do happen to suffer from sunburn, Brodell recommends taking an NSAID for pain, if you doctor allows it.
- Apply cold compresses.
- Avoid all UV exposure.
- Drink liquids to rehydrate.
- While skin is damp, apply moisturizing lotion.
- Apply over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone cream twice daily to calm redness, itching, and swelling.
- People with RA face an increased risk of infection, so if you have a widespread, blistering sunburn, seek medical help, anddo not scratch. This can be treated in a hospital with silver sulfadiazine cream. For smaller areas of blisters, heat a needle in a match to sterilize it and poke the blisters to drain their fluid — the roof of the blister will fall on the base to act as a natural bandage. Then apply antibacterial ointment.
- Any burn that's associated with honey-colored crusting, expanding redness, fever, or chills is likely infected and requires a physician's care.
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