Summer is upon us, and it’s tempting to cool off in the water, play more outdoor sports, or take longer walks. All of this fun likely means more sun exposure. We can’t stress enough the importance of slathering on the sunscreen (at least an SPF of 30) before you and your loved ones venture out into the sun. But sometimes we spend too much time in the sun or neglect to reapply sunscreen and get sunburned.
What Happens When You Get Sunburned?
A sunburn is skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. When your skin is sunburned, blood vessels dilate, causing redness, inflammation, and swelling. Your immune system kicks in and the body sends cells to repair the damage. However, some cells can’t be repaired or don’t die off; instead, they have DNA damage. Although sunburns only last a few days in most cases, long-term damage, such as the increased risk for skin cancers, can take years to appear.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sunburn may not appear until four hours after exposure and worsen the first 24-36 hours afterward. Treatment will depend upon how severe your sunburn is and how sensitive you are to the sun.
Levels of Sunburn
- Mild Sunburns: Mild sunburns are accompanied by some redness and mild pain which can last anywhere from three to five days. Your skin may peel as it regenerates. These cases can likely be treated at home with over-the-counter pain medications and rest. However, Annette Newman, MS, RN, the outreach and disaster coordinator for University of Utah Health’s Burn Center, says that even mild cases can cause dehydration that needs to be monitored, especially among the very young and older adults.
- Moderate Sunburns: Moderate sunburns are typically more painful. These can be red, swollen, and hot to the touch. These burns usually take about a week to heal completely. The skin may then continue to peel for a few more days.
- Severe Sunburns: Severe sunburns cause painful blistering and very red skin. It can take up to two weeks to recover. These burns can sometimes lead to large fluid-filled blisters, which may require a visit to the doctor or even a hospital.
The CDC and the Cleveland Clinic suggest you seek medical treatment if you experience any of the following:
- Severe sunburns covering more than 15% of your body
- Dehydration or symptoms including dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, thirst, or reduced urination
- Chills or fever of 101 degrees or higher
- Extreme pain that lasts for more than 48 hours
- Signs of infection, including pus seeping from blisters
- Sunburn in a baby less than 1 year old
For mild and moderate sunburns without dehydration, fever, or extreme pain, the following treatments may help:
- Taking a nonprescription pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
- Applying cool compresses (never ice packs) or taking a cool bath with two ounces of baking soda added to the tub.
- Apply a moisturizer, lotion, or aloe vera gel. Hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion can also be applied to relieve the itch. Never use products with names that end in “-caine” such as benzocaine. These products can irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction. You should always consult your health care provider before using one of these products.
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
- If a blister breaks, gently clean the area with mild soap and water, then apply antibiotic ointment and cover with a nonstick bandage.
- As skin begins to peel and itch, an oral antihistamine such as Benadryl® or Chlor-Trimeton® may help ease the itch.
- Protect yourself from further sun exposure either by avoiding the sun or applying sunscreen.
What to Do if Your Eyes Get Sunburned
Eyes can get sunburned, too. Also called photokeratitis, some of the symptoms include light sensitivity, teary and swollen eyes, and blurry vision. You should see an ophthalmologist right away if you experience these symptoms as infection could set in. Photokeratitis usually clears up within a few days, but excessive sun exposure can lead to cataracts or eyelid cancer. Both children and adults should wear 100% UV blocking sunglasses to help avoid sun damage.
A Final Reminder
The best treatment is not to get sunburned in the first place! Wear sunscreen and protective clothing, such as a hat, long sleeves, and sunglasses when you know you will be outdoors in the sun for an extended period. Be sure to reapply sunscreen every two hours, especially after swimming.