The exact cause of polymorphous light eruption isn't well-understood. The rash appears in people who have developed a sensitivity to components of sunlight, and in particular ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or other sources, such as tanning beds or tanning lamps. This sensitivity is referred to as photosensitivity. Photosensitivity results in sunlight-induced immune system activity that produces inflammation and a rash.
UV radiation is a wavelength of sunlight in a range too short for the human eye to see. UV light that reaches the earth is divided into two wavelength bands — ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB).
A person with photosensitivity can react to both types of UV radiation. Although UVB doesn't penetrate glass, UVA does. Therefore, exposure to sunlight through windows may cause a reaction in some people with photosensitivity.
Sensitivity to sunlight lessens with repeated exposure in polymorphous light eruption. Therefore, there are somewhat predictable features of polymorphous light eruption:
April 10, 2014
- An episode is most likely to occur after the first one or two exposures to sunlight after a long period of no exposure. This usually means that an episode occurs during the spring or early summer or during a winter vacation in a sunnier location.
- Episodes are less likely to occur as the summer progresses.
- After the first episode of polymorphous light eruption, additional episodes are likely to recur on an annual basis each spring or early summer.
- Some people gradually become less sensitive over several years and eventually may no longer experience recurring episodes.
- Elmets CA. Polymorphous light eruption. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Nov. 6, 2013.
- Photosensitivity. The Merck Manuals: The Merck Manual for Health Care Professionals. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dermatologic_disorders/reactions_to_sunlight/photosensitivity.html#v961913. Accessed Nov. 14, 2013.
- Honigsmann H. Polymorphous light eruption. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine. 2008;24:155.
- Longo DL, et al. Harrison's Online. 18th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2012. http://www.accessmedicine.com/resourceTOC.aspx?resourceID=4. Accessed Nov. 6, 2013.
- Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology. http://www.aad.org/media/background/factsheets/fact_sunscreen.htm. Accessed Nov. 14, 2013.
- Bissonnette R, et al. Influence of the quantity of sunscreen applied on the ability to protect against ultraviolet-induced polymorphous light eruption. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine. 2012;28:240.
- Sun protective clothing. American Melanoma Foundation. http://www.melanomafoundation.org/prevention/clothing.htm. Accessed Nov. 14, 2013.
You Are ... The Campaign for Mayo Clinic
Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit organization. Make a difference today.