A sunburn is skin damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Most sunburns are first-degree burns that cause mild pain and redness because it only affects the outer layer of skin. It might hurt when you touch it but it can usually be treated at home.
Second-degree burn has deep skin layer and nerve endings involved. It is red, painful, swells up and has blisters. This type of sunburn is usually more painful and takes longer to heal.
Other problems that can be present along with sunburn include:
- Heatstroke or other heat-related illnesses from too much sun exposure.
- Allergic reactions to sun exposure, sunscreen products, or medicines.
- Vision problems, such as burning pain, decreased vision, or partial or complete vision loss.
Long-term problems include:
- An increased chance of having skin cancer.
- An increase in the number of cold sores.
- An increase in problems related to a health condition, such as lupus.
- Cataracts, from not protecting your eyes from direct or indirect sunlight over many years. Cataracts are one of the leading causes of blindness.
- Skin changes, such as premature wrinkling or brown spots.
People with fair or freckled skin, blond or red hair, and blue eyes usually sunburn easily. People with darker skin they can still get skin cancer. So it’s important to use sun protection, no matter what your skin color is.
Your age also affects how your skin reacts to the sun. The skin of children younger than 6 and adults older than 60 is more sensitive to sunlight.
You may get a more severe sunburn depending on:
- The time of day. You are more likely to get a sunburn between 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon, when the sun’s rays are the strongest. You might think the chance of getting a sunburn on cloudy days is less, but the sun’s damaging UV light can pass through clouds.
- Whether you are near reflective surfaces, such as water, white sand, concrete, snow, and ice. All of these reflect the sun’s rays and can cause sunburns.
- The season of the year. The position of the sun on summer days can cause a more severe sunburn.
- It is easy to get sunburned at higher altitudes, because there is less of the earth’s atmosphere to block the sunlight. UV exposure increases about 4% for every 1000 ft (305 m) gain in elevation.
- How close you are to the equator (latitude). The closer you are to the equator, the more direct sunlight passes through the atmosphere. For example, the southern United States gets 1.5 times more sunlight than the northern United States.
- The UV index of the day, which shows the risk of getting a sunburn that day.
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
- You have signs of needing more fluids. You have sunken eyes and a dry mouth, and you pass only a little dark urine.
- You have signs of infection, such as:
- Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
- Red streaks leading from the area.
- Pus draining from the area.
- A fever.
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
- You do not get better as expected.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
- What are your main symptoms?
- How long have you had your symptoms?
- Do you have blisters?
- What amount of time did you spend in the sun? Were you at a high altitude?
- Did you use sunscreen or sunblock, and what SPF was used?
- Have you had this problem before? If so, do you know what caused the problem at that time? How was it treated?
- What activities make your symptoms better or worse?
- What prescription or nonprescription medicines do you take?
- What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
- What nonprescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
- Do you have any health risks?
Home treatment measures may provide some relief from a mild sunburn.
- Use cool cloths on sunburned areas.
- Take frequent cool showers or baths.
- Apply soothing lotions that contain aloe vera to sunburned areas. Topical steroids (such as 1% hydrocortisone cream) may also help with sunburn pain and swelling.
Lie down in a cool, quiet room if you have a headache. A headache may be caused by dehydration, so drinking fluids may help.
There is little you can do to stop skin from peeling after a sunburn—it is part of the healing process. Lotion may help relieve the itching.
Other home treatment measures, such as chamomile, may help relieve your sunburn symptoms.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as paracetamol (acetaminophen), ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin can be used to treat your fever or pain.
Care of blisters
Home treatment may help decrease pain, prevent infection, and help the skin heal.
- A small, unbroken blister about the size of a pea, even a blood blister, will usually heal on its own. Use a loose bandage to protect it. Avoid the activity that caused the blister.
- If a small blister is on a weight-bearing area like the bottom of the foot, protect it with a doughnut-shaped moleskin pad. Leave the area over the blister open.
- If a blister is large and painful, it may be best to drain it. Here is a safe method:
- Wipe a needle or straight pin with rubbing alcohol.
- Gently puncture the edge of the blister.
- Press the fluid in the blister toward the hole so it can drain out.
- If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you do not want to drain a blister because of the risk of infection.
- After you have opened a blister, or if it has torn open:
- Wash the area with soap and water. Do not use alcohol, iodine, or any other cleanser.
- Don’t remove the flap of skin over a blister unless it’s very dirty or torn or there is pus under it. Gently smooth the flap over the tender skin.
- Apply an antibiotic ointment and a clean bandage. If the skin under the bandage begins to itch or a rash develops, stop using the ointment. The ointment may be causing a skin reaction.
- Change the bandage once a day or anytime it gets wet or dirty. Remove it at night to let the area dry.
Watch for a skin infection while your blister is healing. Signs of infection include:
- Increased pain, swelling, redness, or warmth around the blister.
- Red streaks extending away from the blister.
- Drainage of pus from the blister.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
- Vision problems continue after you get out of the sun.
- Fever develops.
- Dehydration develops and you are unable to drink enough to replace lost fluids.
- Signs of skin infection in blisters develop.
- Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.