Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sensitive to sunlight

“So, what are you, some kind of plant?” a friend quipped when I mentioned I have photosensitive skin. “That is photosynthesis…” I began, but the friend was so busy laughing I never bothered finishing that biology lesson. It's actually never been easy explaining my sun-allergy. “How can you be allergic to the sun, you're not an Eskimo, you should be used to it,” I'm told all the time. But try telling that to my skin! One unprotected day in the hot sun and it erupts into ugly, itchy patches of rash, and only those who truly love me can bear to look at my face the next morning. The rest tell me to wear a veil. Then again, it was a veil — rather, a scarf fashioned out of the sari pallu — that really helped her mother, says Sumathi. “Whenever she travelled, the side of her body that faced the window used to be covered in a nasty rash. Unfortunately, there was very little you could do 25-30 years ago, as sunscreens were practically unheard of.” Christine, on the other hand, practically dunks her son daily in sunscreen. “He was fine as a little boy, loved being outdoors and was big on football; but when he turned 9, his skin — on the legs, arms and face — simply went crazy. Now I don't let him step outside, even in winter without sunscreen.” And that brings us to the big question — why do some people suddenly react to sunlight, which, like air, has been all around us since we were born? “There are lots of factors and triggers involved in photosensitivity,” says senior consultant dermatologist, Dr. V. R. Janaki. “A small percentage of people are genetically prone to it, and it can typically start at any age. Besides, photosensitivity is not that uncommon today, as the use of scented soaps, perfumes, some drugs (anti-malarials, quinolones, some anti-diabetic drugs), along with exposure to sunlight, leads to it.” Symptoms of allergy “Sun allergy can range from a mild-burning sensation in the sun-exposed areas to polymorphous light eruptions,” says Dr. Janaki, adding that the latter manifests itself as anything from a pinpoint to eczematous rash, papule and plaques. “Diagnosis is easy, as the allergic reaction is confined to the sun-exposed areas. In sari-wearing women, for instance, it is the right side of the back and the arms that are chiefly affected; if they wear salwar-kameez, it's the face and both arms…” But Indians are blessed — and that word is not used lightly — with melanin-rich skin (ranging, on average, between type 4 and 6, on a scale of 1 to 6, depending on the melanin content). “The melanin present in the skin itself affords protection,” explains Dr. Janaki. But for the active sufferers — and anybody who has experienced the problem will vouch for its nuisance value — a few simple measures can go a long way towards alleviating the daily suffering. “Patients need to be counselled to protect themselves from sunlight. Physical barriers — a wide-brimmed hat, full-sleeved cotton clothes, umbrella and gloves — can, to some extent, help. And a sunscreen, applied half-an-hour before stepping out, and re-applied every three or four hours, is equally important,” says Dr. Janaki. Dr. Janaki on the essentials of sunscreen …

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