What is the best treatment for sunburn?
Too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, whether from the sun or a sunlamp, can lead to inflammation commonly known as sunburn. This can increase the risk of further problems, including skin cancer.
Sunburn is easy to avoid, however. If a person does get burned, they can take steps to reduce pain and discomfort over the next few days and more serious damage in the future.
Here, find out more about what sunburn is, how to treat it, and how to prevent it.
What is sunburn?
A day at the beach can be fun, but remember to take the sunscreen.
Sunburn is the result of exposure to UV light, a harmful type of radiation.
The body protects itself from this type of radiation by increasing the production of melanin, the dark pigment that contributes to skin coloring. Extra melanin gives the skin a darker color. On lighter skin, people call this a tan.
However, melanin can only protect the body from a certain amount of UV light. Too much exposure causes the skin to burn.
When a person with darker skin gets a sunburn, their skin may darken. When a person with lighter skin gets a sunburn, their skin may turn red or pink.
Regardless of skin type, a person may also feel a burning sensation in the area and have:
- blistering skin
- swelling (edema)
- a headache
- a high fever
- extreme pain
- nausea and vomiting
Sunburn can vary in severity. The treatments are similar, but a person with a severe sunburn may need to continue treatment for longer.
To relieve symptoms of a sunburn:
- Move out of the sun, preferably into a cool area.
- Soak towels in cool water and lay them on the sunburned area.
- Moisturize the skin — with a product containing aloe vera, for example — to prevent dryness.
- Avoid bursting blisters, as this can slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection.
- Use over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, if necessary.
- Ask a pharmacist about a low dose (1%) hydrocortisone cream, which may reduce pain and swelling.
- Drink extra water to prevent dehydration and help the skin heal.
- Eat foods with a high concentration of water, such as cucumber or watermelon.
- Eat a healthful, balanced diet to encourage healing.
- Wear tightly-woven fabrics and stay out of the sun as much as possible until the skin has healed.
- Get some rest — sprinkling talcum powder on the sheets may keep them from sticking to the skin.
A pharmacist can advise about suitable products. Some moisturizers contain petroleum, which can trap heat in the skin. Others contain benzocaine or lidocaine, which can irritate the skin. Ask a doctor or pharmacist before administering any product or pain relief medication to a child.
If a blister breaks, clean the area gently with water and mild soap, apply antibacterial cream, and protect the area with a wet dressing. A person can also cover the area lightly with gauze.
If a person with a sunburn has a fever and is vomiting, of if they stop sweating, they may need medical help. These may be signs of heat stroke, which can be life threatening without treatment.
While treatment can relieve symptoms, it cannot reduce the risk of skin cancer and other long term problems. The best solution is to limit sun exposure going forward.
Who is at risk?
Sunburn can affect anyone, but people with fair skin have a higher risk of skin cancer.
Anyone can get a sunburn. It can happen, for example, while on vacation in an unfamiliar place, where the sun is stronger than a person is used to.
Being close to the equator or near water, sand, or snow can also increase the risk of sunburn, even when there is cloud cover.
The risk is also greater at high altitude. People who practice mountaineering, winter sports, and water sports should take special care, even if the air feels cool.
Other people with an above-average risk of sunburn, skin cancer, or both include:
- people who take certain medications, such as methotrexate and some antibiotics
- people who smoke
- people with HPV
- people with a family history of melanoma
- people with certain genetic factors that increase their risk
- those with fair skin
- people with reduced immunity
- solid organ recipients
- people with autoimmune connective tissue diseases, such as lupus
These people should ask their doctors about how to reduce the risk of sunburn and skin cancer.
Parents and caregivers should take care to protect children's skin and prevent overexposure to sunlight. Even pets can get sunburn, and a vet can give advice about preventing it.
Cancer and other risks
No exposure to any type of UV ray is entirely safe.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, over 9,500 people receive a diagnosis of skin cancer every day in the United States. When the cancer is a type other than melanoma, 90% of these cases likely result from UV sun exposure.
Melanoma is one of the more common forms of skin cancer and also one of the most dangerous. Doctors recognize avoiding sunburn as the best way to prevent melanoma.
Authors of a study published in 2001 concluded that a person's risk for melanoma doubles if they have sunburn five or more times.
Other problems that can result from too much sun exposure include:
- early skin aging, including a loss of elasticity
- thinning skin and wrinkles
- changes in pigmentation
- solar lentigines, which appear on the skin as brown patches with irregular borders
Spending too long in the sun can also result in:
- deyhydration and heat exhaustion
- heat stroke, which can be fatal
Limiting sun exposure can reduce the risk of all of these issues.
UV light can cause sunburn, even when it is cloudy.
Anyone spending time outdoors should take precautions, such as:
- wearing sunscreen, even in the shade, on bright days
- using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30
- avoiding sun exposure from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
- wearing closely woven fabrics
- wearing UV blocking wraparound sunglasses
- wearing a wide-brimmed hat
- seeking shade, where possible
The UV index gives an idea of how safe it is to be outside at any time. At night, the index is 0, but at midday, it can rise to 12 or higher.
The widget below, from the Environmental Protection Agency, can help a person determine how safe it is to spend time outdoors, depending on the UV index.
Covering up in the sun can help, but the amount of protection depends on the clothes. A plain, white T-shirt offers an SPF of around 7, but this sinks to 3 if the shirt gets wet. The opacity of the fabric is important. As the American Cancer Society point out, "If you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through, too."
Popular sunburn myths
A number of myths can keep people from sufficiently protecting themselves in the sun.
It is only dangerous for children
Whatever a person's skin type, they should protect their skin from too much sun exposure.
In the past, experts suggested that up to 80% of sun damage occurs before the age of 18.
It is important to look after children's skin, and the CDC recommend minimizing direct sun exposure before the age of 6 months.
However, one study concludes that there is probably no "critical period" during which a person is more at risk.
Whether a person gets sunburn at an early age or later, it causes damage and increases the risk of skin cancer. People older than 18 should still take precautions to minimize the impact of sun exposure.
If you have sunburn once, you will get skin cancer
Skin cancer develops as a cumulative process. While it is possible that a person who has been sunburned once may develop skin cancer, persistent high exposure to sunlight increases the risk. The more incidents of sunburn, the higher the risk.
Dark skin will not burn
Any color or type of skin can burn.
Although people with pale skin tend to have a higher risk of skin cancer, everyone is at risk of sunburn and its long term effects.
Genetic factors can increase anyone's risk of developing skin cancer. Sun exposure can further heighten this risk.
Only use sunscreen at midday
Some people believe that sunscreen is only necessary when the sun is directly overhead, from around 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. The chances of developing sunburn are highest at this time. However, one type of UV radiation, from UVA rays, is constant all day long.
Everyone should take care when it comes to sun exposure, regardless of age, skin color, and time of day. Sunburn can affect anyone.
Some people believe that it is worse to use sunscreen than not, as sunscreen contains dangerous chemicals. What is the best thing to do?
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreen is safe to use. Dermatologists recommend it, and scientific studies support wearing it on a regular basis to protect against skin cancer.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continue to tell people that they should apply sunscreen. They are also asking for more information about sunscreen ingredients. On their website they note:
"Given the recognized public health benefits of sunscreen use, Americans should continue to use sunscreen and other sun protective measures as this important rulemaking effort moves forward."
Sunscreen plays a key role in protecting your skin from the sun. When you use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, it can:
• reduce your risk of developing skin cancer
• prevent sunburn
• decrease signs of aging on your skinCynthia Cobb, APRN Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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