7 Medications That May Make You Extra Sensitive to Sun and Heat

Acne treatments, antibiotics, and antidepressants can all make you more susceptible to UV damage and overheating.

When you're getting ready to enjoy your time in the sun, don't overlook a key health tip: some of your medications (like antibiotics and antidepressants) may make you more sensitive to the summer sun and heat.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) points out that some medications contain ingredients that cause photosensitivity, or a chemically-induced change in the skin that can make you more sensitive to sunlight. Photosensitivity also breaks down into two separate types:

Photoallergy: An allergic reaction of the skin that can occur up to several days after exposure Phototoxicity: An irritation of the skin that can occur within a few hours

Phototoxicity is the most common type of photosensitivity from medications. "For the major players that interact with the sun and cause what's called phototoxicity, those [effects] should be listed on the bottle or in the patient information," Megan Rech, PharmD, an emergency medicine clinical pharmacist at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, told Health. The effects can range from skin irritations to a reduced ability to sweat or an increased amount of fluid lost through urine.

But, according to Rech, side effects can differ between people and medications. "There are a lot of medications that can cause interactions with the sun, so lesser-known side effects [that] occur in fewer patients may not always be obvious," Rech pointed out. That's why it's important to revisit whatever safety info you have and to check in with your healthcare provider, who can let you know about potential risks during the brightest and warmest time of year.

To help, here are some of the better-known medications that may allow sun and heat to hit you harder—and what you can do about it.

Antibiotics

"Antibiotics can cause photosensitivity and phototoxic reactions, meaning that they're going to worsen your sunburn," Rech said. "The one that comes to mind right away is Bactrim, or sulfamethoxozole trimethoprim." Bactrim is prescribed to treat bacterial infections like bronchitis and bladder infections. "That's a big offender, and so are tetracyclines and fluoroqinolones,." Rech said. The FDA also includes other antibiotics—like ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, levofloxacin, ofloxacin, trimethoprim—as medications that may make you react poorly to the sun, too. That said, you should never, ever skip an antibiotic for the sake of sunbathing, warned Rech. Your healthcare provider can help you juggle your plans and your meds.

Acne Treatments

"Those can definitely be phototoxic, especially the retinoids," said Rech. "Phototoxic effects are going to appear like a really bad sunburn." The risk is more pronounced for prescription retinoids (such as Retin-A and Tazorac), which are significantly stronger than the products you'll find at drugstores and beauty counters. According to research published in 2016 in the European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, OTC acne and anti-aging products with retinol can cause dryness, peeling, and sun sensitivity as well. The same review stated that products with salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide can also increase your vulnerability. If you're using one and plan to spend significant time outdoors, be sure to sport sunscreen and a broad-brimmed hat.

Allergy Medications

Some users find that oral antihistamines like diphenydramine (found in products like Benadryl and Dramamine) reduce their ability to sweat. When you're body gets too hot, sweat cools you down—for comfort and for staying healthy. In extreme cases, as noted in a 2018 Consumer Reports publication, the overheating that can result leads to cramps, exhaustion, and even heat stroke. If you find that your allergy meds make it difficult for you to cool down, plan outdoor activities for the morning and evening, and try to spend the hottest hours of the day indoors.

Antidepressants

Tricyclic antidepressants may cause problems in hot weather because they "prevent the area in your brain that regulates heat response from knowing you're overheating," Rech explained. "They can also decrease sweating, which leads to a decrease in heat loss."

When you're taking a drug that increases the likelihood of overheating, stay alert for warning signs. According to the CDC, these can include such as headaches, lightheadedness, nausea, and weakness. If you experience any of those symptoms, get out of the sun and reach for water or a sports drink with sodium (which will help your body retain fluid until the balance is restored). In the event of a severe reaction such as confusion, fever, or fainting, contact your healthcare provider or call 911.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs include commonly used OTC medications like ibuprofen and naproxen, as well as prescription treatments like Celebrex. They are used to treat pain, swelling, and fevers. "The main non-steroidal that cause phototoxicity are probably not ones that we commonly use," Rech said. But still, caution should be used, especially if you're on other medications. "Any time you're taking a non-steroidal and going out in the sun I would recommend barrier protection with sunscreen and avoidance if possible because any of the non-steroidal can worsen [phototoxicity]," Rech explained.

Vitamins and Herbs

"A lot of over-the-counter herbal medications [can have phototoxic effects]—for example, St. John's Wort is a big inducer of photosensitivity, and that medication, in particular, has a number of drug interactions. Anyone [interested in taking it] should ask their doctor or pharmacist first," said Rech. Another pill that might put you at risk: Niacin, a form of Vitamin B3 that's used to treat high cholesterol. It can cause skin reactions, Dr. Rech said, "so it could potentially cause [sun sensitivity]."

Topical Medications

Significant sun exposure can amplify the effect of transdermal patches (such as Fentanyl, a powerful pain reliever, or Clonidine, which lowers blood pressure) that deliver medication directly through the skin. When you get a sunburn, the blood vessels in the surface of your skin dilate, explained Rech, and that can lead to increased absorption of your meds. So if you're wearing a patch, it's a good idea to consider long sleeves.

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