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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 3 minutes read

Sunburn is when excessive exposure to the sun damages the skin causing it to become damaged. The majority of cases can be self-treated. Sunburn is an example of a first-degree (superficial) burn - the skin is red, painful and very sensitive to touch, and the damaged skin may be slightly moist from leakage of the fluid in the deeper layers of the skin.

Sunburn, caused by the UVB rays in sunlight, is common and sore at the time. But it also increases your risk of developing skin cancer later in life, so it's important to avoid this by using sun safe practices. These include adequate - sun cream SPF 30 and above, with both UVA and UVB protection, cover up with hats and clothes and avoid the sun altogether on summer days between 11 am and 3 pm.

Doctor’s advice

Next steps

The discomfort of sunburn peaks around one day after exposure and should resolve within a week. If you have mild to moderate sunburn, make sure you stay hydrated and treat the symptoms of the sunburn by using a cool shower/bath, aftersun or another moisturiser (your pharmacist can advise you on this). You may need to take pain relief such as paracetamol and ibuprofen.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

There are two types of ultraviolet rays emitted by the sun, UVA and UVB. To stay safe you need to wear a sun cream that protects you from both - they can even get through clouds and glass.

UVB is primarily responsible for sunburn (B for burn), and can be linked to specific types of skin cancers including melanoma. SPF (sun protection factor) relates to the protection you get from UVB rays. It's best to use the highest factor sun cream (such as an SPF 50), especially for children and those with sensitive skin. Be wary of skin moles, as they are most cancerous.

UVA rays give you wrinkles (A for ageing). Here in the UK, we have a star rating for UVA protection - this is advertised less reliably than SPF, so take care to look for a rating of 3 stars and above (or a description of "broad spectrum"), although a maximum of 5 stars gives you the best protection.

If you are swimming or sweating lots, ensure you are reapplying water-resistant sun cream regularly.

Am I fit for work?

You are likely fit for work if you have sunburn, except if your job involves outdoor work, where you should avoid the sun until your skin has recovered.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor as soon as possible or call 111 if it is a young child with sunburn, if you have severe sunburn (swollen or blistered skin), or if you have signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, indicated by nausea, dizziness, headache, profuse sweating, a high temperature and muscle cramps. Heatstroke can be serious and even life-threatening.

Call 999 if they have a temperature of over 40°C, or if there’s any signs of shortness of breath, confusion, fitting or passing out (losing consciousness).

The doctor will ask you about your medical history, current symptoms and will examine your skin to see the severity of the burn. They may also assess you for dehydration and any blisters may be dressed.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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