What is sunburn?

Sunburn is redness, soreness, itching, and sometimes blistering that happens after your skin is exposed to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun or a sunlamp for too long.

Any sunburn causes long-term damage to the skin and increases the risk of skin cancer. Blistering burns increase the risk even more. This is especially true if you have severe sunburns 3 or more times when you are a teen or young adult.

What is the cause?

You may get sunburned when:

  • You stay out in the sun too long without enough protection from sunscreen or clothing.
  • You are in the sun when sunlight is most intense, usually between the hours of 10 AM to 4 PM.
  • You take medicines that make your skin more sensitive to the sun.
  • You live, work, or travel in an area where sunlight is more intense, such as in the tropics or at high altitude, or you are exposed to reflection of sunlight from water or snow.

It doesn’t have to be hot or sunny for you to become sunburned. You can get sunburned when it’s cloudy.

What are the symptoms?

You may not have any symptoms until a few hours after you have been burned. Symptoms may include:

  • Redness
  • A feeling of heat
  • Mild to severe pain
  • Blisters

Within a couple of days, your skin may itch. In about a week your skin may peel.

There is a form of severe sunburn called sun poisoning. It appears to be a total body reaction to the sunburn. It can cause symptoms of fever and chills, nausea, headache, dehydration, and lightheadedness.

How is it treated?

The symptoms of sunburn usually worsen 24 to 48 hours after you are burned. The symptoms slowly go away over the next few days.

It may help to:

  • Soak in a cool bath. It may help to add bath products containing oatmeal to help decrease itching and the burned feeling.
  • Put cool, moist cloths on the sunburned skin several times a day.
  • Take an anti-inflammatory medicine, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen. It will help the sunburn be less painful. It may also lessen the damage to your skin, especially if you start taking it when you first suspect you are sunburned. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.
  • Take antihistamine pills, such as Benadryl, for itching. Read the label and take as directed. Antihistamines may make you drowsy. Do not drive or operate machinery or equipment while you are taking this medicine. Do not use antihistamine lotions while taking antihistamine pills.
  • For itching and discomfort, you can try one of these products. If one product doesn’t work, you can try another one a few hours later. Read the label and use as directed.
    • Aloe vera gel labeled for skin burns
    • Calamine lotion
    • Hydrocortisone cream

It’s best to leave most small blisters alone. The skin covering the blister helps protect you from an infection. If you have larger blisters that break open, you can apply some antibiotic ointment, such as bacitracin, and then cover the blistered area with a bandage to prevent infection.

If you are not sure about how severe your blisters are or whether they are infected, check with your healthcare provider. Signs of infection include new or worse redness, swelling, pain, warmth, or drainage from the sunburned area.

If you think you may have sun poisoning, follow the treatment for sunburn and drink plenty of fluids, such as water, juice, and tea. Don’t drink alcohol.

How can I help prevent sunburn?

To prevent sunburn:

  • Don’t stay out in the sun for a long time, especially if you burn easily. Remember that you can get sunburned even on cloudy days.
  • Stay out of the sun during the times of most intense rays, usually between the hours of 10 AM to 4 PM.
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or greater. The lighter your skin, the higher the SPF you need. Healthcare providers recommend an SPF of at least 30 if you are very fair skinned. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. It’s best to put the sunscreen on your skin 30 to 60 minutes before you go out into the sun. Put sunscreen on your skin every 3 to 4 hours while you are in the sun. If you are playing in water or sweating a lot, put more sunscreen on every hour or two.
  • Also protect your lips with a product that contains sunscreen.
  • You may want to use a sunscreen with zinc oxide to completely block the sun’s rays.
  • Wear protective clothing: a hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants.
  • Be especially careful if you are at high altitude or traveling in the tropics, or if the sun’s rays are being reflected by water, sand, snow, or concrete.
  • Do not use sunlamps or tanning booths. They produce UV rays that can cause sunburn, aging of the skin, and skin cancer. A tanning booth “pre-tan” does not protect against sunburn. If you want to look tan, much safer choices are self-tanning sprays, creams, and gels.

Sunlight also damages the eyes and increases your risk for certain types of vision loss or blindness when you get older. Wear sunglasses that provide 100% UV ray protection.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-30
Last reviewed: 2014-10-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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