How to treat and prevent sunburn

Sunburn is the term used to describe dark, often swollen, and painful skin caused by overexposure from the sun to ultraviolet rays. Sunburn can range from mild to severe.

The magnitude depends upon the type of skin and the amount of sun exposure. Sunburn is an significant risk factor in skin cancer.

As you approach the equator, the risk of sunburn increases due to variations in the intensity of UV radiation going through the atmosphere. The higher the altitude, the lower the UV-rays.

The sum of UV radiation depends on the angle of the sun, on a minute-by-minute basis. At solar noon the greatest danger is when the sun is directly above you.

Important facts about sunburn

Here are some key points about sunburn. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

  • Sunburn is caused by ultraviolet light from the sun.
  • In some cases, sunburn can cause the skin to blister.
  • Sunburn can be soothed by home remedies.
  • Avoiding sunburn in the first place is better than having to treat its effects.
Symptoms of sunburn
Sunburn can be very uncomfortable indeed.

Sunburn symptoms vary from person to person. You can not experience skin redness for several hours following burning. It will take 12–24 hours for peak redness.

Lesser sunburns typically cause the affected areas nothing more than minor redness and tenderness.

Blistering may occur in more serious cases. Extreme sunburns can be painful to the point of weakening, and may need hospital care.

Symptoms include, in even more serious cases:

  • fever
  • chills
  • nausea and vomiting
  • weakness

In extreme cases, symptoms of shock can occur, for instance:

Sunburn can occur in less than 15 minutes, but often the harm isn’t immediately obvious.

Skin can turn red in as little as 30 minutes after exposure but most often takes 2-6 hours. The most severe pain typically occurs 6-48 hours after exposure. The burn continues to develop for 24-72 hours, followed by peeling of skin in 3-8 days at times.

Some peeling and itching can last several weeks.

Treatments for sunburn

It is necessary to commence sunburn treatment as soon as possible. Sunburn may cause permanent damage to the skin and can increase the risk of skin cancer. The following are several easy ways to reduce sunburn discomfort; however, it is important to note that the safest way to relieve distress is to prevent sunburning in the first place:

Pain relief – over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief such as ibuprofen or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help relieve pain and decrease swelling. Taking those as soon as possible is safest. It can be used as a topical ointment to provide pain relief.

Hydrocortisone cream – may also help reduce inflammation and itching.

Rehydrate – drink water to help rehydrate the skin.

Don’t break small blisters – allow them to run their course. If one breaks, clean it with mild soap and water.

Peeling skin – do not pick, and continue to apply moisturizer.

Cool the skin – apply a damp cloth or towel, or take a cool bath.

Do not use butter – this is a false remedy that can prevent healing and damage skin.

Apply moisturizer – for instance, aloe vera gel.

Stay out of the sun – avoid making the burn worse by exposing it to more UV.

If the sunburn is serious enough, several days of oral steroid treatment (cortisone-like medications) can be prescribed. Steroid creams on the skin however show minimal to no benefit.

Steroids can be withheld if blistering is present to prevent an increased risk of infection. If the patient is dehydrated, or has heat stress, IV (intravenous) fluids are given.

Diagnosing Sunburn

A mild sunburn usually does not require a doctor’s visit. If serious symptoms do occur, however, it is necessary to seek medical attention.

A health care provider will inquire about symptoms and medical history. A physical exam may be done and a person will be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin disorders or a dermatologist for more serious cases of sun damage.

Sunburn prevention

Using lotion to avoid sunburn
There is a range of ways to avoid sunburn.

The best way to prevent sunburn is to reduce the amount of sunlight that skin is exposed to:

  • sit in locations with shade
  • wear a wide-brimmed hat
  • protect the eyes with sunglasses
  • avoid going out in the hottest part of the day
  • always wear sunblock and reapply regularly

How to choose sunblock

Commercial preparations that block UV light, named sunscreens or sunblocks, are available. They are rated as having a sunburn protection factor (SPF), based on the ability of the sunblock to suppress sunburn. Basically, the higher the SPF level, the lower the amount of damage direct to the skin.

A sunscreen rated as SPF 10 blocks 90 percent of the UVB radiation that causes sunburn; a sunscreen rated as SPF20 blocks 95 percent.

Modern sunscreens include UVA-radiation filters and UVB filters. Although UVA radiation does not cause sunburn, it leads to aging of the skin and an increased risk of skin cancer. Many sunscreens provide wide-spectrum protection, which means they protect against UVA and UVB radiation.

Research has shown that application is best secured 15-30 minutes before exposure, followed by one re-application 15-30 minutes after exposure begins.

Back to top button