The Pain of Sunburn

Sunburn on the neckWe all know that it is best to avoid sunburns by using sunscreens and staying out of the sun during peak hours – important considerations for long-term skin health and skin-cancer prevention. But sometimes things happen. A forgotten hat, thinking you’re protected from the sun’s rays under your beach umbrella, neglecting to reapply sunscreen after a swim – everyday experiences like these can lead to a nasty sunburn and the pain that comes along with the characteristically red skin. 

What exactly causes sunburn pain?
Studies have examined the effects of ultraviolet radiation on the skin. Exposure to ultraviolet light (UVB, the sun’s rays that cause sunburn) causes inflammation of the skin in direct proportion to the dose and length of exposure. Similarly, the pain associated with stimulation of the skin increases in proportion to the dose and length of exposure. In short, sunburns are more intense and more painful the more time we spend in the sun.

At the cellular level, sunburns cause inflammation in the skin, which stimulates the movement of immune cells into the damaged skin. In response, the inflammation spurs the secretion of cytokines, molecules that relay signals between cells. Different types of cytokines increase, including interleukin-1 (IL-1), tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and substance P. In particular, interleukin-1 and substance P are likely to directly stimulate C fibers, a specialized set of nerve fibers in the skin that transmit related pain signals to the brain. The results? Skin that is tender to the touch, and sometimes painfully so.

Treating Sunburn Pain
Once the damage has been done, the most important step to ease the pain is to decrease the inflammation. Anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin can help calm the pain of sunburns. In addition, applying cool, wet cloths to sunburned skin can provide soothing comfort. There are also a number of soothing lotions and gels available that contain aloe vera, an effective natural remedy for burns. (Do NOT give aspirin to any child aged 18 years or younger without first consulting a doctor.)

With severe sunburns, it is best to leave blisters intact once they have formed. The blister roof (intact skin over the blister) forms a natural bandage, protecting the fresh, new skin beneath and preventing risk of infection.

Considering the pain and the damage done to skin, the best course of action is to avoid the sunburn in the first place with sunscreens, sun-protective clothing, and a broad-brimmed hat.

Published on 06/15/2009 | Last updated on 10/18/2018