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What is Sunburn?

A sunburn is the skin burn associated with redness that occurs when your skin is overexposed to the sun or other ultraviolet light.

What are the symptoms of Sunburn?

The signs and symptoms may not appear for 24 hours or longer. Possible symptoms are:

  • Red, tender and painful skin ( pain is worst between 6 to 48 hours after sun exposure)
  • Blisters that develop hours to days later
  • Sun poisoning (Severe reactions including fever, chills, nausea, or rash)
  • Skin peeling on sunburned areas seen several days after the sunburn

These symptoms are usually temporary. But skin cell damage is often permanent. It can have long term effects which may even include skin cancer and early ageing of the skin.

What are the causes of Sunburn?

Melanin is the pigment present underneath your skin. It protects the skin from harmful ultraviolet radiations. Sunburn occurs when the amount of exposure to the sun or other ultraviolet light source exceeds the ability of melanin to protect the skin. Sunburn occurs rapidly in light-skinned people. It may occur in less than 15 minutes of midday sun exposure. Dark-skinned people can tolerate the same amount of sun exposure for hours without any damage.

Important points about Sun Exposure

  • A healthy tan is a myth. There is no such thing. Unprotected sun exposure causes early ageing of the skin and skin cancer.
  • Sun exposure can cause skin burn (both first and second-degree burns)
  • Skin cancer can appear in adulthood due to sun exposure and sunburns in childhood.
  • Infants and children are very sensitive to the burning effects of the sun.
  • Light-skinned people are more likely to get a sunburn. But even dark-skinned people can get a sunburn.
  • The intensity of Sun’s rays is strongest between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is also stronger at higher altitudes and lower latitudes (closer to the equator). Reflection off water, sand, or snow can make the sun’s burning rays stronger.
  • Sun lamps can cause severe sunburn.
  • Some antibiotics like doxycycline can make your skin easier to sunburn.
  • Some medical conditions like lupus can make you more sensitive to the sun.
See also  Heavy Metal Blood Test

What can you do at home if you get sunburn?

You can do following things at home if you get sunburn.

  • Take a cool shower or place clean wet, cool washcloths on the burn.
  • If there are blisters, dry bandages may help prevent infection.
  • If your skin is not blistering, moisturizing cream may be applied to relieve discomfort.
  • Creams with vitamins C and E may help limit damage to skin cells.
  • Over-the-counter medicines, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, help to relieve pain from sunburn.
  • Cortisone creams may be helpful in reducing the inflammation.
  • Loose cotton clothing should be worn.
  • Drink lot of water.

How to prevent Sunburn?

Adopt following measures to prevent sunburn.

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher. A broad-spectrum sunscreen protects from both UVB and UVA rays.
  • Apply a generous amount of sunscreen to fully cover exposed skin and reapply every 2 hours or as often as the label says.
  • Reapply sunscreen after swimming or sweating and even when it is cloudy.
  • Use a lip balm with sunscreen.
  • Wear protective clothing including a hat with a wide brim. Light-coloured clothing reflects the sun most effectively.
  • Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • You can wear sunglasses with UV protection.

What you shouldn’t do?

  • DO NOT use benzocaine or lidocaine or products containing them. These can cause allergy in some persons and make sunburn worse.
  • DO NOT pick at or peel away the top part of the blisters.
  • DO NOT use butter, petroleum jelly (Vaseline), or other oil-based products. These can block pores so that heat and sweat cannot escape, which can lead to infection.
  • DO NOT give aspirin to children.
See also  Laceration

What to consult your doctor?

Consult your doctor right away if you have a fever with sunburn or signs of shock, heat exhaustion, dehydration, or other serious reactions. These signs include:

  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Rapid heartbeat or breathing
  • Extreme thirst
  • Unable to pass urine
  • Sunken eyes
  • Pale, clammy, or cool skin
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Fever with chills or rash
  • Your eyes hurt and are sensitive to light
  • Severe, painful blisters


American Academy of Dermatology website. Sunscreen FAQs. www.aad.org/sun-protection/sunscreen-faqs. Accessed December 23, 2019.

Habif TP. Light-related diseases and disorders of pigmentation. In: Habif TP, ed. Clinical Dermatology: A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 19.

Krakowski AC, Goldenberg A. Exposure to radiation from the sun. In: Auerbach PS, Cushing TA, Harris NS, eds. Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 16.