A sunburn is an inflammation of the skin as a result of overexposure to the sun. The sun's ultraviolet rays produce an acute injury to the outer layer of skin cells, damage the tiny blood vessels underneath and cause a burn.
What are the causes and risks of the injury?
The ultraviolet rays from the sun destroy the outer layer of skin cells, causing a sunburn. Risk factors that increase a person's chance of sunburn include the following:
- fair skin and inability to tan
- high altitude
- living near the equator
- wind, high temperature and humidity
- reflections from snow, sand, and water
- oral medications which produce photosensitivity
What can be done to prevent the injury?
The best prevention is to avoid sun exposure during the peak hours between 10 A.M. and 4 P.M. For those who want to tan their skin, particularly fair-skinned people, sun exposure should be limited to 15 minutes on the first day, then increased gradually. Most dermatologists believe there is no safe tan.
Measures to avoid sunburn include the following:
- avoiding sunbathing, including indoor tanning facilities
- applying and reapplying
sunscreenwith a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, as directed on the package. Fair-skinned people should use sunscreen with a higher SPF.
- wearing proper protective clothing, including long sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat.
Avoid clothing that has a thin, open weave fabric or is wet.
- wearing sunglasses, or ski goggles for winter sports
- applying lip balm that contains sunscreen
- avoid tanning beds
How is the injury recognized?
Diagnosis is usually made by a history of sun exposure, examination of the skin, and the person's own experience of the warmth and tenderness associated with sunburn.
What are the treatments for the injury?
The treatments for sunburn include:
- cool baths
- cool compresses, which are wet cloths applied to areas of skin irritation
- avoidance of repeated sun exposure
- soothing lotions and creams
- over-the-counter creams containing numbing agents (these should be avoided if one is allergic to them)
Some healthcare professionals will prescribe a corticosteroid cream to speed up the healing process for people with severe sunburn. For people with severe burns, blisters can sometimes rupture and become infected. If the ruptured blisters appear to be infected, it is important to seek treatment.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Placing people, especially small or thin people, in cool baths can cause them to become chilled very easily. It is important not to allow the water to become too cool. Some of the lotions and ointments used for the treatment of sunburn pain can cause an
allergic reaction in the affected area.
What happens after treatment for the injury?
Most sunburns heal within 10 to 14 days if further sun exposure is avoided. It is important to realize that progressive sun exposure increases the risk for developing certain skin cancers, such as
melanoma. Therefore, people with multiple sunburns or a history of significant sun exposure should be checked frequently by a healthcare provider for suspicious skin lesions.