Sunburn — red, painful skin that feels hot to the touch — usually appears within a few hours after sun exposure and may take several days or longer to fade.
Intense sun exposure that results in sunburn increases your risk of certain complications and related skin diseases. These include dry, wrinkled skin, liver spots, actinic keratoses, and skin cancer, including melanoma.
You can prevent sunburn and the related skin conditions by protecting your skin whenever you're outdoors, even on cloudy days. If you do get sunburn, several home remedies and treatments can relieve your pain and speed the healing of your skin.
Signs and symptoms of sunburn include:
Any part of your body, including your earlobes, scalp and lips, can burn. Your eyes, which are extremely sensitive to the sun's ultraviolet light, also can burn. Sunburned eyes may feel painful or gritty.
Signs and symptoms of sunburn usually appear within a few hours after sun exposure. But it may take a day or longer to know the full extent and severity of sunburn.
Within a few days, your body starts to heal itself by "peeling" the top layer of damaged skin. After peeling, your skin may temporarily have an irregular color and pattern. Depending on the severity, it may take several days or longer for the sunburn to heal.
When to see a doctor
Also, seek medical care if you notice signs or symptoms of an infection. These include:
Sunburns are caused by exposure to too much ultraviolet (UV) light. UV radiation is a wavelength of sunlight in a range too short for the human eye to see. UV light is divided into three wavelength bands — ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet C (UVC). Only UVA and UVB rays reach the earth. Commercial tanning lamps and tanning beds also produce UV light and can cause sunburn.
When you're exposed to UV light, your skin accelerates its production of melanin. Melanin is the dark pigment in the epidermis that gives your skin its normal color. The extra melanin — produced to protect the skin's deeper layers — creates the darker color of a "tan." A suntan is actually your body's way of blocking the UV rays to prevent sunburn and other skin damage. But the protection only goes so far. The amount of melanin a person produces is determined genetically, and many people simply can't produce enough melanin to protect the skin well. Eventually, UV light causes the skin to burn, bringing pain, redness and swelling.
You can get sunburn on hazy or cloudy days. As much as 90 percent of UV rays pass through clouds. UV rays can also reflect off snow, ice, sand, water and other reflective surfaces, burning your skin as severely as direct sunlight.
Skin layers and melanin
Melanin is a natural pigment that gives your skin its color. It's produced in cells called melanocytes. ...
People with fair skin are more likely to sunburn than are people with dark skin. That's because people with darker skin have more melanin, which offers some protection from sunburn but not from UV-induced skin damage.
Skin color is determined by the number, distribution and type of pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) in the skin. Dermatologists refer to the degrees of pigmentation in skin as skin types. Skin types range from very little pigment (type I) to very darkly pigmented (type VI). How easily you burn depends on your skin type and how light or dark your skin is.
Regardless of your skin type, the sun's energy penetrates deeply into the skin and damages DNA of skin cells. This damage may ultimately lead to skin cancer, including melanoma. Even people with type V or VI skin can develop skin cancer, often on the palms, fingers or other more lightly pigmented areas of their bodies.
In addition to skin type, living in a sunny or high-altitude climate increases your risk of sunburn. People who live in sunny, warm climates are exposed to more sunlight than are people who live in colder climates. In addition, living at higher elevations, where the sunlight is strongest, exposes you to more radiation and increases your chances of sunburn and skin damage.
Intense sun exposure that results in sunburn increases your risk of certain complications and related skin diseases. These include infection, premature aging of your skin and skin cancer.
Some types of skin cancer appear as a small growth or as a sore that bleeds easily, crusts over, heals and then reopens. In the case of melanoma, an existing mole may change or a new, suspicious-looking mole may develop. Other types of melanoma develop in areas of long-term sun exposure and start as dark flat spots that slowly darken and enlarge, known as lentigo maligna.
See your doctor if you notice a new skin growth, a bothersome change in your skin, a change in the appearance or texture of a mole, or a sore that doesn't heal.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to first see your family doctor or primary care doctor. Before you go to your appointment, make a list of all medications that you're taking — including vitamins, herbs and over-the-counter drugs — as some medications increase your sensitivity to UV radiation.
For sunburn, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
If your doctor notices any skin abnormalities, such as lesions or suspicious moles, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin diseases (dermatologist) for further evaluation.
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor is likely to conduct a physical exam and to ask questions about your symptoms, UV exposure and sunburn history.
If you experience sunburns or skin reactions after relatively minor exposures to sunlight, your doctor may recommend phototesting. During phototesting, small areas of your skin are exposed to measured amounts of UVA and UVB light to try to reproduce the problem. If your skin reacts to the UV radiation, you're considered sensitive to sunlight (photosensitive).
Treatments and drugs
Sunburn treatment doesn't heal your skin or prevent damage to your skin, but it can reduce pain, swelling and discomfort. If at-home care doesn't help or your sunburn is very severe, your doctor can prescribe medication. These include:
Lifestyle and home remedies
Once sunburn occurs, you can't do much to limit damage to your skin. However, the following tips may reduce your pain and discomfort in the hours and days after sunburn:
Some products — such as topical "-caine" products, for example, benzocaine — claim to relieve sunburn pain. Some dermatologists warn against using these products because they can irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction. Benzocaine has also been linked to a rare but serious, sometimes deadly, condition that decreases the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry. Don't use benzocaine in children younger than age 2 without supervision from a health care professional, as this age group has been the most affected. If you're an adult, never use more than the recommended dose of benzocaine and consider talking with your doctor.
Use these methods to prevent sunburn:
Some people try getting a "base" tan to prevent sunburn. The idea is that a few sessions of indoor tanning will protect them from burning in the sun. There's no scientific proof that this is true. A base tan is no substitute for sound sun protection. Plus, the risks of long-term tanning outweigh the unproven benefits of a base tan.
Last Updated: 2011-04-14
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