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Sunburn

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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Sunburn is when excessive exposure to the sun damages the skin causing it to become red, inflamed, and painful. 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, 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 using adequate sun cream (SPF 30 and above, UVA and UVB protection), covering up with hats and clothes, and avoiding 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, after-sun or another moisturizer (your pharmacist can advise you on this). You may need to take pain relief such as acetaminophen 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 sun cream that protects you from both – these rays 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.

UVA rays give you wrinkles (A for aging). Look for a "broad spectrum" description for the best protection.

If you are swimming or sweating a lot, ensure you reapply water-resistant sun cream regularly.

Check your skin regularly for any changes, paying close attention to any moles. See your dermatologist for annual check-ups.

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 if it is a young child with sunburn, if you have a 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 911 if there is a temperature of over 104F or if there are any signs of shortness of breath, confusion, seizures, or passing out (losing consciousness).

The doctor will ask you about your medical history and current symptoms and 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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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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