Medical Mystery: Meet the Girl Who’s Allergic to Sunlight

While many people with allergies often have to avoid dust or food such as chicken and egg, there are a number who deal with somewhat weird triggers, such as 11-year-old Savannah Fulkerson who could not stay under the sun because she is allergic to sunlight!

Truly, I’ve heard of a lot of allergies but this is the first time that I heard of someone being allergic to sunlight, except, of course, vampires and similar characters in fiction.

Savannah was not always allergic to sunlight or, at least, the symptoms did not manifest until she was 4 years old.

Living in sunny California, the Fulkerson constantly enjoys having fun under the sun and doing activities like swimming in the pool or hanging out at the beach. So, Savannah’s mother, Andrea, was puzzled when the child would start screaming as soon as they get to their destination. Savannah would claim that she feels like she was burning – then, blisters and welts would appear on her skin, as if she was sunburnt even when she was only exposed to the sun for a few minutes.

Most of the doctors they went to only told them Savannah was suffering from a case of eczema but her mother refused to accept the diagnosis, saying eczema could not possibly cause her symptoms – especially because she would be writhing in pain over her condition.

It was not until some 5 years later that a doctor, Dr. Minnelly Luu of Children’s Hospital Los Angees, was finally able to provide the family with the correct diagnosis: Savannah is suffering from Erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), a form of porphyria. Patients with EPP have photosensitivity, meaning their skin will burn upon exposure to sunlight.

An active girl, Savannah does not let her condition bring her down. She has made the night her day and the day her night. And if she does go outside to have fun with her friends, she wears a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves, long pants, and shoes to cover her entire body.

Her parents were also quite supportive. Knowing Savannah could not play outside as much as she wanted, they also changed their schedules to match hers and made changes in their home to accommodate her strange condition. For example, there’s a huge trampoline in their living room!

Learn more about Savannah’s condition in this video:

What is EPP?

Erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP) is a medical condition wherein the body lacks an enzyme called ferrochelatase which helps convert protoporphyrin into hemoglobin. Because of the enzyme deficiency, protoporphyrin levels become high. This is dangerous because protoporphyrin absorbs sunlight and sets off a chemical reaction that causes damage to the surrounding tissues.

This is the reason why people with EPP have abnormal sensitivity to sunlight. The symptoms might vary from one person to another but most patients experience intense pain followed by blistering or swelling in exposed body parts. The symptoms are often felt within minutes from sun exposure but take several hours (even days!) to resolve/heal.