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26th Jun 2023

‘I fell asleep on the beach and got severe sun poisoning – my face was so swollen my sister didn’t recognise me’

Steve Hopkins

‘I cried about it a lot, I didn’t want anyone to see me – I got told I looked like a turtle or an alien’

A woman who fell asleep at the beach developed severe sun poisoning – leaving her face so swollen she looked like an “alien” and even her sister didn’t recognise her.

Bela Chatwin was left unrecognisable after suffering sun poisoning while on holiday. The severe form of sunburn, usually a burn from ultraviolet radiation, inflames the skin.

The interior design assistant accidentally fell asleep on the beach in San Diego without applying any sun cream.

The 21-year-old took three weeks to recover with doctors giving her steroid-based skin creams.

Her face became so swollen that her own little sister, Aero Chatwin, then three, couldn’t recognise her – and other people said she looked like “an alien”.

Bela says it transpired she has photodermatitis – a lifelong allergy to the sun – but she wasn’t diagnosed until the sun poisoning alerted doctors to it. She had never known because she had always applied sun cream so never suffered a reaction.

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

Bela, from Lehi, Utah, said that day she got sun poisoning 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,” she said.

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

Then things got worse and Bela could “barely open my eyes”.

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

A doctor later told Bela she had the worst case of sun poisoning he had ever 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,” she said of the incident in April 2018.

Bela said the temperature was between 18 and 22 degrees on the day she got burnt and that she had still intended to apply sunscreen, but fell asleep.

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

“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.

“Random strangers kept asking about it – one even grabbed some aloe vera from their yard to give me.”

Bela said most people were “scared of me” and would “look at me like I was an alien.”

As well as the outward signs of sunburn, Bela says she was throwing up several times a day.

Bela was told she had sun poisoning, as a result of having photodermatitis, and was prescribed various medications.

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

“I cried about it a lot, I didn’t want anyone to see me – I got told I looked like a turtle or an alien.”

Since then, Bela said she’s been very careful to always apply sun cream, even if it’s cloudy or not that hot. And since then, she said she hasn’t had a reaction.

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

Looking back, I can laugh about it now – how I looked was hilarious.

“But it was absolutely horrific to experience, and I never want that to happen again.”

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