Woman’s warning after horrific sunburn left her face looking like an alien

Dr Alex George gives advice on sunburn and suncream in 2021

A woman has issued a warning to others after falling asleep on the beach without applying suncream, leading to sun poisoning.

Bela Chatwin, now 21, was left with a face so swollen that she looked like an “alien”.

It took three weeks for her to recover, using steroid-based face creams.

Sun poisoning is the term for a severe case of sunburn – burn from ultraviolet radiation that inflames the skin.

Sufferers could experience red or blistered skin, headaches, swelling, pain, nausea and fever among other symptoms.

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While treating the sunburn doctors discovered Bela, from Utah in the US, had photodermatitis – a lifelong allergy to the sun.

However, she had never known because she had always applied sun cream so diligently before this point.

She now swears she’ll never make the same mistake again and encourages others not to underestimate the importance of using SPF.

Bela recalled: “That day it was just me and my friend at the beach, and it was bright but cloudy and not that hot.

“I fell asleep for about five hours – I thought my friend would wake me up, but she fell asleep too.

“The next day I was bright red, and my face started getting puffy and blistered.

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“I realised it was a bigger deal than just normal sunburn – at its worst, I could barely open my eyes.

“Total strangers were coming up to me asking what was wrong and my sister didn’t even recognise me.

“I went straight to the doctor, and he told me it was sun poisoning, and it was the worst case he had seen.

“Ever since then I’ve been so careful in the sun because I know I’m allergic and I never want to go through that again.”

The sun poisoning occurred in 2018, when Bela was 16 on holiday in California. She said the temperature was only between 18C and 22C that day, and it was cloudy.

She intended to apply sun cream but fell asleep before she had the chance – and ended up asleep on the sand for five hours without sun protection.

When she woke up, her skin wasn’t initially red, but she said she felt “exhausted” despite her unplanned nap.

But the following day, her skin was bright red, which she put down to sunburn – but then things took a turn for the worst.

“The day after that, I started getting puffy and there were blisters on my chin and cheeks,” she said.

“I panicked – I started to realise it was a bigger deal than just sunburn, and it was so painful too.

“The day after that, my face was completely swollen – I could barely open my eyes.

“The blisters began to pop, and it was so gross – whenever I went outside, I’d wear a surgical mask to cover up.

“Most people’s reaction was to be scared of me – they would look at me like I was an alien.”

As soon as Bela returned home, she got an emergency doctor’s appointment to find out what was wrong.

By this point the sun poisoning had also caused her to be sick several times.

At this point the reaction had gone beyond just her face – she was throwing up several times a day.

She said: “It took about three weeks to get fully better – but at first I was worried I’d look like that permanently.”

Since then, Bela said she’s been very careful to always apply suncream, even if it’s cloudy or not that hot.

She added: “Now I know you should be careful no matter what – it could happen to anyone.”

The NHS advises calling 111 or getting an urgent GP appointment if:

  • Your skin is blistered or swollen
  • Your temperature is very high, or you feel hot and shivery
  • You feel very tired, dizzy and sick
  • You have a headache and muscle cramps
  • Your baby or young child has sunburn.

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