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Sunburn

Definition

Sunburn is the term for red, sometimes swollen and painful skin. Sunburn can vary from mild to severe. The extent depends on your skin type and the amount of exposure to the sun. Sunburn is a serious risk factor for skin cancer and for sun damage.

First Degree (Superficial) Burn

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Causes    TOP

Sunburn is caused by overexposure to UV rays from the sun.

Risk Factors    TOP

Factors that may increase your chance of sunburn include:

  • Being exposed to the sun
  • Having light skin color
  • Taking certain medications that may increase your sensitivity to the sun, such as, antibiotics, diuretics, and birth control pills
  • Living in certain areas, such as southern United States

Symptoms    TOP

The symptoms of sunburn vary from person to person. You may not notice redness of the skin for several hours after the burn has begun. Peak redness will take 12-24 hours.

Symptoms can include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Warmth
  • Pain
  • Blisters
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Weakness

When to Call Your Doctor

A mild sunburn does not often require a visit to the doctor.

See your doctor if you have a severe burn or if your burn symptoms are not improving after a few days.

Call if you have:

  • Large areas of blistering
  • Fever
  • Extreme pain
  • Headache or confusion
  • Lightheadedness or vision changes
  • Severe swelling
  • Signs of infection, such as:
    • Having open blisters that are draining pus
    • Having areas of redness or red streaks spreading or moving away from open blisters

Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. For more severe cases of sun damage, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin disorders.

Treatment    TOP

Treatment depends on the severity of the sunburn. The first and most important step in treatment involves getting out of the sun at the first sign of redness or tingling. Stay out of the sun until the skin is fully healed. This may take several weeks.

In addition, you can do the following:

  • Apply a cool compress to soothe raw, hot skin.
  • Take over-the-counter pain reliever if advised by your doctor.
  • Use prescription or over-the-counter topical medications such as silver-based agents or aloe vera if advised by your doctor.
  • Take oral or topical corticosteroids if advised by your doctor. These may shorten the course of pain and inflammation. Topical steroids may not relieve skin redness.
  • Take prescription antibiotics if an infection develops.
  • Be extra careful to protect skin after it peels. The skin is very sensitive after peeling.

Prevention    TOP

To prevent sunburn, you must shield your skin from the sun's rays.

  • Avoid strong, direct sunlight.
  • Plan outdoor activities early or late in the day to avoid peak sunlight hours between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm.
  • Choose a broad spectrum sunscreen or sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. It should filter out both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.
  • Apply sunscreen liberally, thoroughly, and frequently to all exposed skin. Do not forget your lips.
  • Wear protective, tightly woven clothing or special sunblock clothes, as well as a broad-rimmed hat and sunglasses.

Keep in mind that water is not a good filter. You can become sunburned while swimming or snorkeling. You can also become sunburned during the winter, and on cloudy or foggy days.

RESOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology
http://www.aad.org
Skin Cancer Foundation
http://www.skincancer.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Dermatology Association
http://www.dermatology.ca

References:

Faurschou A, Wulf HC. Topical corticosteroids in the treatment of acute sunburn: a randomized, double-blind clinical trial. Arch Dermatol. 2008;144(5):620-4.
Han A, Maibach HI. Management of acute sunburn. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2004;5(1):39-47.
Minor burns. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T901428/Minor-burns. Updated March 19, 2015. Accessed August 5, 2015.
Oliveria SA, Saraiya M, Geller AC, Heneghan MK, Jorgensen C. Sun exposure and risk of melanoma. Arch Dis Child. 2006;91(2):131-138.
Sies H, Stahl W. Nutritional protection against skin damage from sunlight. Annu Rev Nutr. 2004:24:173-200.
Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs. Accessed August 5, 2015.
Last reviewed March 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD
Last Updated: 8/5/2015

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This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

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