Sunburn is skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays. Too much exposure to UV light can make your skin red and painful, which can later lead to peeling or blistering.
Reddening caused by overexposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation — may seem like just a temporary irritation, but sunburns can cause long-lasting damage to the skin. Children are especially at risk: One blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person's chances of developing melanoma later in life.
The severity of sunburn can vary depending on your skin type and how long you are exposed to UV rays. However, the main symptoms of sunburn are red, sore and blistering skin. The symptoms may not occur immediately and can take up to five hours to appear.
Sunburn results from too much sun or sun-equivalent exposure. Almost everyone has been sunburned or will become sunburned at some time. Anyone who visits a beach, goes fishing, works in the yard, or simply is out in the sun can get sunburned.
Improper tanning bed use is also a source of sunburn. Although seldom fatal, severe sunburn or sun poisoning can be disabling and cause quite a bit of discomfort.
One or more blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence more than double a person's chances of developing melanoma later in life, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Moreover, a person's risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns at any age.
Main Sunburn symptoms are:
- Mild and uncomplicated cases of sunburn usually result in minor skin redness and pain.
- Initially, the skin turns red about 2-6 hours after exposure and feels irritated. The peak effects are noted at 12-24 hours.
- More severe cases (sun poisoning) are complicated by severe skin burning and blistering, massive fluid loss (dehydration), electrolyte imbalance, and possibly infection.
- Untreated sunburn and with enough exposure, a person can experience shock (poor circulation to vital organs) and even death.
Other common symptoms include:
- Nausea or vomiting, or both.
- Flu-like symptoms.
- Blistering may range from a very fine blister that is only found when you begin to "peel" to very large water-filled blisters with red, tender, raw skin underneath. When blisters pop, the skin that covered the blisters will slough off.
- Skin loss (peeling) at about 4-7 days after exposure.
Some individuals experience a sun rash (sometimes called sun poisoning) due to a condition called polymorphous light eruption (PMLE). About 10% of Americans are affected by PMLE, a reaction that does not appear to be linked to drugs or diseases.
Symptoms of PMLE are a mild to severe skin rash, usually appearing within 30 minutes to several hours of sun exposure.
The rash may be itchy and have these characteristics:
- Small bumps all over the body, predominantly in sun-exposed areas.
- Sun rash progresses to dense clumps of bumps.
- Hives, usually on the arms, lower legs, and chest.
Picture of peeling skin from a sunburn
Picture of sunburn
Sunburn is literally a burn on the skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This burn causes inflammation of the skin. Injury from sunburn can begin within 30 minutes of exposure.
- UVA and UVB refer to different wavelengths in the light spectrum. UVB is more damaging to the skin, especially for risk of skin cancer. Both UVA and UVB are responsible for photo-ageing (premature ageing of the skin and wrinkles) and sunburn. Tanning beds produce both UVA and UVB rays.
- Individuals who travel to the southern regions close to the equator and places at high altitudes carry a higher risk for sunburn.
- Light-skinned and fair-haired people are at greater risk of sunburn.
- Prior recent sun exposure and prior skin injury are risks for sunburn, even in limited exposure to the sun.
You can reduce your risk of developing skin cancer by protecting your skin with sunscreen. Follow the advice listed below.
- Avoid strong sunlight whenever possible, particularly when the sun is strongest, and cover up with loose clothing and a hat.
- When buying sunscreen, choose one with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least factor 15 (the higher the better) which protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
- Apply a generous amount of sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going out in the sun and reapply regularly (at least every 2-3 hours). Even water-resistant sunscreens should be reapplied after you come out of the water.
- A stick application with a high SPF is useful for exposed areas, such as your nose, ears and lips. These areas tend to burn more easily.
- Keep babies and young children out of direct sunlight.
Normal limited exposure to UV radiation produces beneficial vitamin D in the skin.
If you feel a sunburn is severe, call the doctor. The affected person most likely will be asked how severe their condition is and if they have any other significant health problems. The doctor can then make the decision to treat the individual at home or in the office or refer them to an emergency department.
If a person suffers any of these conditions with sunburn they should go to a hospital's emergency department:
Sunburn Home Remedies
Home care begins prior to a sunburn. Prevention is the most important step to avoid short-term consequences of sun exposure (redness, pain, blistering) and the long-term risks for skin damage and skin cancer.
Immediate self-care is aimed at stopping the UV radiation.
- Get out of the sun.
- Cover exposed skin.
- Get out of the tanning bed.
- Use SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher and apply frequently when outdoors.
Relief of the discomfort becomes important, and there are several sunburn remedies.
- Medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, andnaproxen to decrease pain and inflammation are useful, especially when started early.
- For mild sunburn, cool compresses with equal parts of milk and water may suffice. Cold compresses with Burow's solution may also be used, and can be bought at a drugstore. Dissolve 1 packet in 1 pint of water. Soak gauze or a soft clean cloth in it. Gently wring out the cloth and apply to the sunburned area for 15-20 minutes. Change or refresh the cloth and solution every 2-3 hours.
- Aloe vera gel or aloe-based lotions may soothe irritated skin. These can be found in the drugstore.
- Cool (not ice cold) baths may help. Avoid bath salts, oils, and perfumes because these may produce sensitivity reactions. Avoid scrubbing the skin or shaving the skin. Use soft towels to gently dry the body. Don't rub. Use a light, fragrance-free skin moisturizer.
- Avoid lotions that contain topical anesthetic medications because a person can become sensitized and then allergic to that medicine.
- Stay out of the sun while you are sunburned.
- Stay hydrated to avoid dehydration.
Certain medical treatments have been tried and studied to treat sunburn. However, in general, most remedies have not shown any clinically proven benefit as far as speeding the recovery or reversing the damage. Therefore most of the treatments available are only used to treat symptoms.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs(NSAIDs) in oral (ibuprofen, Motrin, Naprosyn, Advil etc.) or topical diclofenac 0.1% gel (Solaraze) forms have shown to reduce redness if applied before or immediately after UVB exposure. This benefit may be diminished after 24 hours. It should be noted that these medications may also help relieve the symptoms of sunburn such as pain and discomfort.
- Topical steroid creams were also studied, but these did not show any significant improvement. Oral steroids such asprednisone did not prove beneficial and have been associated with some significant side effects.
- Applying Aloe Vera gel to the skin has also not been beneficial in treating the actual sunburn. However, this may be beneficial in treating the symptoms.
- Other advertised remedies such as topical anesthetics (benzocaine) may help with symptoms of sunburn, however, very little clinical data is available to substantiate their effectiveness.