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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thomas Bailey, MD

How to treat your sunburn

With the summer heat starting up, it is a good time to brush up on the dangers of sunburn and how to treat it should you get one.


Most of us have experienced sunburn at some point.  Caused by exposure to UV rays, it causes skin to become hot, red, painful and tight.  Most sunburns are of the first-degree type, affecting the surface layer of the skin.  If the deeper dermis layer of the skin becomes damaged, extremely red skin with blistering will develop, which is called a second-degree burn.  If burns extend to deeper layers of the skin and fatty tissue, it is referred to as a third-degree burn, which, although rare with sunburns, is extremely painful and dangerous.  Most of these types of burns require emergency care. Repeated sunburns can be dangerous, leading to premature aging of the skin and skin cancers.


The symptoms of sunburn usually begin a few hours after unprotected exposure to the sun.  The skin becomes red and hot to the touch, with associated sensations of pain, swelling and tightness.  Symptoms of first-degree sunburns peak in the next 24 hours and gradually subside over several days.  Second-degree burns may produce pain that lasts several days and subside over several weeks. In the healing process, skin may begin to peel.


The best thing is to avoid sunburn by applying sunscreen, wearing protective clothing (longer sleeves, hats, etc.) and avoiding the direct sun during the hours of 10 AM to 4 PM when it is at its peak.  However, if you happen to find yourself with a sunburn, here are some ways to treat it:


·       Immediately cover the skin

·       Apply a cool damp cloth to the sunburn areas several times a day, for about 10 minutes at a time

·       Use topical cooling gels such as those with aloe.  Do not use gels or ointments containing alcohol as they may irritate and dry the skin out more.

·       Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration

·       Use over the counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) for pain and swelling

·       Over the counter hydrocortisone cream may help with swelling and itching

·       If you develop a second-degree burn, do not pop or puncture any blisters that may develop as it provides an entry point for skin infections 


If you have severe blistering, large areas of the skin damaged by sunburn, a temperature more than 102 F, chills or extreme pain, see your physician as soon as possible.


Remember to stay safe this summer and use appropriate sunscreens. The best ones offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays, have an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher, and are water resistant.  Remember to apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going outdoors and reapply after every 2 hours or sooner if swimming or if excessively sweating.

two people sunbathing on a sandy white beach

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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