What you need to know about sunburn blisters

Sunburn is a heat and radiation-induced skin injury. A first-degree burning affects the skin’s top layer, causing redness, mild tenderness, which can cause moderate peeling of the skin within 24 to 48 hours of injury.

A more serious sunburn, known as second degree burning, causes deeper skin damage. This kind of burning can cause blisters to form and will take longer to heal. The blisters usually occur a couple of hours after sunburn, but they may often take up to 24 hours to develop.

Sunburn blisters can be very painful and it can take about a week to recover. This form of burn also raises the risk of developing melanoma and skin cancer. Blister scars which appear as dark or light spots on the skin surface may remain visible for 6 to 12 months after the blisters heal.

We look at what causes such blisters to grow in this article, how to look after them, and what can be done to protect the skin from the sun.

Important facts about sunburn blisters:

  • Sunburn blisters are similar in appearance to regular blisters.
  • They tend to heal naturally after around a week.
  • Sunburn blisters may be accompanied by more severe symptoms that should be seen by a doctor.
  • People can avoid sunburn blisters by following sun protection guidelines.

Symptoms

Sunburn blister symptoms
A second-degree burn from sun exposure may cause sunburn blisters. Image credit: Axelv, 2008

Sunburn blisters form on the skin like little bumps.

In nature, they are usually white or translucent and filled with fluid which can be lymph, serum, plasma, blood, or pus.

Most people who get sunburned will find the blisters very painful, particularly when touched or when a clothing object rubs against them. We can get incredibly itchy, too.

Nevertheless, when the blisters begin healing, both pain and itchiness will diminish.

Possible complications

Sunburn blisters normally only occur when a person is severely sunburned. Because of this, a person who develops blisters due to overexposure to the sun may face many complications.

These complications include:

Someone who experiences these symptoms after being in the sun should seek their doctor’s advice whether or not sunburn blisters occur.

Sunburn blisters alone have few complications, but they can develop an infection if they are picked or popped up. An infection may require medical attention, and can result in scarring.

Since sunburn blisters typically only occur in those with severe sunburn, skin cancer is also at elevated risk.

Diagnosis

Many people with sunburn blisters find they heal spontaneously and after about a week, they will disappear by themselves.

However, if a person is unsure about whether the lumps on their skin are sunburn blisters, they can contact a doctor or a dermatologist who will examine them and make a diagnosis based on the lumps’ appearance. The doctor or dermatologist will then provide treatment plans and therapy.

If a person with sunburn blisters also has any of the following symptoms, they should visit their doctor immediately:

  • swelling of the skin
  • chills or a high temperature (100°F or higher)
  • dizziness, a severe headache, nausea, or vomiting

The doctor will ask questions such as how long they have been in the sun and whether they have used any protection from sunlight. They will then be able to advise about the best course of action for the patient.

Treatment and home care

 Aloe vera cream
Applying lotions that include aloe vera may help to relieve sunburn.

Sunburn, which is severe enough to cause blistering, can require medical treatment by profession.

Special burn cream may be administered by a doctor to soothe the skin and help with the healing process and may also be applied to protect the region.

When a person shows some of the sun-poisoning symptoms associated with it, they may need to remain in the hospital to allow doctors to watch them closely.

Home treatment of milder sunburn cases is possible. Keeping inside and out of the sun is necessary once sunburn occurs.

Other home care options include:

  • Cooling skin by having a cold bath or shower, or simply using a cold damp sponge or flannel can help soothe skin and relieve pain and itching.
  • Applying lotions designed to relieve sunburn, such as those containing aloe vera, can also be helpful by soothing the skin and keeping it moisturized.
  • Drinking plenty of hydrating fluids, such as water, will cool the body and prevent dehydration.
  • Taking painkillers available for purchase over the counter or online, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to help relieve pain.
  • Remaining in a cool, shaded room away from direct sunlight.
  • Covering up all affected areas and ensuring they are not exposed to the sun until the skin has fully healed.

Prevention and sun care tips

A lady using sun cream
Protecting the skin with a sunscreen that has a high sun protection factor (SPF) is recommended to avoid sunburn.

Staying out of the Sun is the best way to prevent sunburn blisters. This isn’t always realistic, or necessary, though.

The most popular ways to prevent sunburn blisters are:

  • Avoiding going outside during the times when the sun is at its strongest.
  • Protecting skin from the sun even on cloudier days will help to ensure it does not burn.
  • Using a sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or above and applying this every 2 hours when out in the sun.
  • Wearing protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts or T-shirts, sunglasses, and wide-brim hats, will also give added protection.
  • Applying sunscreen generously, making sure to cover every part of the body.
  • Buying sunscreen that blocks both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation and has a minimum 4-star rating for UVA protection.
  • Re-applying sunscreen after entering the water or excessive sweating, even if the label says the product is water-resistant.

An individual should also be conscious of the sensitivity of their skin to the sun. This sensitivity varies from person to person but typically fairer skinned people are more likely to burn faster.

Some medicines will increase a person’s vulnerability to the sun and therefore the risk that they will burn. Before sitting in the sun for long periods of time, people should be sure to read the labels on any drugs, and seek advice from a doctor if not sure.

Also in cooler, cloudier weather, sunburn blisters can occur and light reflected off snow can also increase the risk of sunburn.

Outlook

The risks of exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays can lead to more severe long-term consequences, many of which will only become apparent decades later.

These long-term effects can include:

  • Precancerous spots known as solar keratosis can appear on the skin and will usually be dark, rough, and scaly in appearance.
  • Premature aging of the skin can occur on skin exposed to lots of sun along with dark sunspots.
  • Skin cancer is another risk, particularly to those who burn their skin severely enough that sunburn blisters occur.

However, for a lot of people with sunburn blisters, home care treatment services are adequate to ensure they recover well.

As long as sunburn blisters heal, don’t get picked or popped up, and don’t get infected they should go away and fade over time.

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