Images of Sunburn
Sunburn is damage to the top layers of the skin caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Most commonly, the light source is the sun, but tanning beds and some intense heat sources, such as welding tools, can also produce a sunburn. The sunburn usually becomes apparent within 24 hours of exposure; the skin becomes red, warm, and tender, and the person may feel dizzy or ill. Sometimes the skin may blister and peel.
Experiencing a sunburn raises the lifetime risk of developing skin cancer. Sunburn and sun exposure also increase wrinkling and other signs of premature aging in the skin. Even a tan is dangerous to the skin, as many doctors consider a tan to be an early sunburn. The best protection is to avoid the sun, especially during the peak hours of 10 AM to 3 PM. Always wear sunscreen on exposed skin with an SPF of at least 30. Additionally, it is important to know that you can get a sunburn through certain clothing and that tanning beds are a source of the same light that cause burns, premature aging, and skin cancer.
Who's at risk?
Sunburn occurs in people of all ages but is much more common in people with lighter skin. People with darker skin have more pigment (melanin), which is protective, but even people with the darkest skin can experience sunburn and skin cancer.
Signs and Symptoms
Sunburn may occur on any sun-exposed area. Sunburn appears as immediate redness within 4 hours following exposure, followed by deep redness and blister formation in severe situations. Long-lasting redness may be present for weeks after the actual burn.
If you have suffered a sunburn, further direct sun exposure should be avoided for a few days. Cool water or cool milk soaks may help cool and 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 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 you may still be exposed to ultraviolet light even on cloudy days.
- Use a hat with a wide brim. A baseball hat 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 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.
- Do not use tanning beds!
- In front of a full-length mirror, inspect the front of your body, making sure to look at the front of your neck, chest (including under breasts), legs, and genitals.
- With your arms raised, inspect both sides of your body, making sure to examine your underarms.
- With your elbows bent, examine the front and back of your arms as well as your elbows, hands, fingers, areas between your fingers, and fingernails.
- Inspect the tops and bottoms of your feet, the areas between your toes, and toenails.
- With your back to the mirror and holding a hand mirror, inspect the back of your body, including the back of your neck, shoulders, legs, and buttocks.
- Using a hand mirror, examine your scalp and face.
When to Seek Medical Care
Usually, sunburn does not require a doctor's care. If you are running a fever, however, see a doctor because that indicates possible heatstroke. Additionally, if you are burned over a large portion of your body and there is severe discomfort and inflammation, seek medical attention. Also seek medical advice if there are signs of infection.
Treatments Your Physician May Prescribe
In addition to medicine (usually non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for pain relief, for severe burns, a doctor might prescribe prednisone, an oral steroid, to help reduce the inflammation.
Trusted LinksClinical Information and Differential Diagnosis of Sunburn
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.