Sunburn

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Images of Sunburn

Overview

Sunburn is caused by the skin's reaction to ultraviolet light exposure. It appears as reddening and tenderness of the skin and usually occurs between 12 and 24 hours after the exposure. It can develop blisters and shedding of the outer layer of skin.

Who's at risk?

Sunburn occurs in people of all ages, particularly those with fair skin.

Signs and Symptoms

Sunburn may occur on any sun-exposed area. Sunburn appears as immediate redness within 4 hours after exposure, followed by deep redness and blister formation in severe situations. Long-lasting redness may be present for weeks after the actual burn.

Self-Care Guidelines

If your child has suffered a sunburn, further direct sun exposure should be avoided for a few days. Cool water or cool milk soaks may help soothe the affected areas. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help decrease the redness and pain. Applying a greasy cream or ointment may actually make the pain worse by trapping the heat on the skin. Make sure to have the child drink lots of fluids.

Do not attempt to break any blisters that may form; you can cover these with gauze if necessary. If any break on their own, a topical antibiotic ointment can be applied. A moisturizer can help with skin peeling afterward. Avoid topical products that end in "-caine" as they can sometimes further irritate the skin.

Prevention is very important. To reduce risk of skin cancer later in life, sunburns should be prevented.

  • Avoid direct sun in the middle of the day (10 AM to 3 PM). Remember: snow and water reflect light to the skin, and clouds still let a lot of light through, so your child may still be exposed to ultraviolet light even on cloudy days.
  • Use a hat with a wide brim. A baseball cap does not give much protection.
  • Cover up with tightly woven clothing. Some manufacturers make specialty clothing with a high sun protection factor (SPF) rating, or you can purchase a special ingredient to be added to your washer that can "wash" SPF into your child's clothing.
  • Use sunscreen on all exposed skin areas, including the lips, before going outdoors. A broad spectrum (blocks UVB and UVA light), with an SPF of at least 30, is best. Apply generously 30 minutes before going outdoors, and reapply every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating a lot.
Familiarize yourself with the moles, freckles, and other marks on your child's body so that you can spot any changes in them, including shape, size, color, or other changes, such as bleeding or itching.

When to Seek Medical Care

See your child's doctor for evaluation if he or she has severe discomfort and inflammation with a sunburn.

Treatments Your Physician May Prescribe

Usually, sunburn does not require a doctor's care. However, if the child is running a fever, has chills, nausea, vomiting, or is feeling faint, see a doctor, as that would indicate possible heatstroke. Additionally, if the child is burned over a large portion of his or her body, the child may require medical attention. Also seek medical advice if there are signs of infection.

Severe sunburns or blistering of the skin need the attention of a physician or pediatrician immediately. Prescribed treatment may include intravenous fluids, topical care, and dressings to speed healing and reduce infection, medicine to relieve pain, and sometimes systemic steroids to reduce inflammation.

Trusted Links

Clinical Information and Differential Diagnosis of Sunburn

References

Bolognia, Jean L., ed. Dermatology, pp.1275, 1277. New York: Mosby, 2003.

Freedberg, Irwin M., ed. Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine. 6th ed. pp.1354, 1380. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Han A, Maibach HI. Management of acute sunburn. Am J Clin Dermatol. 5(1):39-47, 2004.