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Sunburns 101: Tips to Avoid the Burn

Posted July 03, 2023 by Darla Hadden, PA-C

Person sunburned

Despite our best intentions and precautionary measures to protect our skin from the hot, blazing sun, many of us have suffered from sunburn at one time or another. But it’s no big deal if you’ve only been burned a few times, right? Wrong.

The dangers of even one sunburn go far beyond the short-term pain, redness and swelling. After the redness fades, lasting damage remains.

When your skin absorbs ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight, it can damage the genetic material in skin cells. In the short term, it causes sunburns, but in the long run, it results in premature aging and raises your risk for skin cancer.

In fact, sunburn is a leading cause of skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Your risk of developing deadly melanoma doubles with a history of five or more sunburns.

People with lighter skin tones are more prone to sunburns, but anyone can get burned. Even if you have darker skin and don’t get sunburns, your skin is susceptible to damage from the sun. It’s not the sunburn that increases your risk; it’s the amount of exposure to the sun’s UV rays.

Preventing sunburns

The good news is sunburn is preventable — and this doesn’t mean you have to stay indoors all summer long.

Your best protection is to apply sunscreen daily, even on cloudy days, to protect your skin from harmful rays that can cause cancer. Just make sure it’s broad spectrum with an SPF of 30 or higher. Apply it 30 minutes before heading outside and reapply every two hours, or immediately after getting out of the water or after excessive sweating.

You also can protect yourself with a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection, sun-protective clothing and limiting your sun exposure during the most intense times of day, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Sunburn symptoms

If you do get a sunburn, the symptoms are the body’s inflammatory reaction to UV radiation damage to the skin’s outermost layers. Symptoms normally occur about four hours after sun exposure and can include:

  • Red, swollen, itchy and painful skin
  • Skin that may be warm to the touch
  • Blisters
  • Dehydration
  • Headache
  • Fever and nausea

About three to eight days after sunburn, your skin may start to peel. This is the body’s way of ridding itself of damaged skin cells.

How to treat sunburns

There is no magical cure for sunburns. You just have to give your body time to heal and replace the damaged layer of skin. The more severe a sunburn, the longer it will take, but most mild sunburns will heal completely in about three to five days.

Summa Health offers 5 ways to maximize your body’s natural healing process:

  1. Act fast to cool down your skin. Apply a cold compress to your skin shortly after sunburn to help draw away excess heat, while reducing inflammation. Don’t put ice directly on the sunburn. You also can take a cool bath or shower to soothe your skin. Avoid harsh soap that can further irritate your skin. Try adding a few tablespoons of baking soda and a cup of oatmeal to your bath to soothe your skin and reduce irritation.

  2. Moisturize while your skin is damp. After a bath or shower, don’t completely towel off so you leave moisture on your skin. Then, apply a moisturizer that contains aloe or soy.

  3. Decrease inflammation. Take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, to help ease pain and swelling. You also can apply hydrocortisone cream to the sunburn. It is good for treating swelling, irritation and itchiness.

  4. Stay hydrated. Sunburns draw moisture to the skin and away from the rest of your body. Drink plenty of water and fluids with electrolytes to help rehydrate.

  5. Protect your skin while it heals. Wear clothing that covers your sunburned skin when outdoors. Tightly woven fabrics are best. When you hold the piece of clothing up to bright light, you shouldn’t see any light shining through.

Most mild sunburns heal on their own without medical treatment. However, contact your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing the following signs of severe sunburn:

  • Blistering sunburn that becomes swollen and covers a large portion of your body
  • Dizziness, feeling sick or extremely tired
  • Signs of infection, such as pus, red streaks or worsening pain
  • Headache, muscle cramps or a fever

You should always consult a doctor for babies and toddlers with sunburn.

Learn from your burn and make this one your last! Whether you’re heading to the beach, walking your dog or hitting the slopes, take care to prevent sun damage and ensure you never feel the burn!

If you’re suffering from sunburn and need to consult a physician, Summa Health offers virtual visits for your convenience. 


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If your situation is an emergency, call 911.