6 Tips for Treating a Sunburn

Treating sunburn
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What are the best tips and remedies to treat a sunburn? What else should you know about getting too much sun? Why is it important to read labels and become familiar with ingredients if you wish to adequately protect your skin?


Sunburn treatment is a misnomer—there is no way to actually get rid of sunburn, only to relieve its symptoms until it goes away on its own.

Sunburns can range from mild to severe. A first-degree sunburn refers to reddening of the skin. A second-degree sunburn often produces blisters.

Let's take a look at what methods may help the symptoms of your sunburn, what symptoms may be warning signs of a more serious condition, and how to make sure that next time you spend time in the sun, you won't end up burned.

How to Treat a Sunburn

There are a number of remedies which may help decrease the discomfort of your sunburn. These include:

  • Try taking a cool bath or shower. Or place wet, cold washcloths on the burn for 10 to 15 minutes, several times a day. You can mix baking soda in the water to help relieve the pain. (Small children may become easily chilled, so keep the water tepid, that is, room temperature.)
  • If your skin is not blistering, moisturizing cream may be applied to relieve discomfort, but should generally be used only when a burn has begun to heal and has reached the dry, itchy stage. Aloe gel is a common household remedy for sunburns; it contains active compounds that help stop the pain and inflammation. Hydrocortisone cream may also be effective. If the burn is severe, your doctor may prescribe a prescription medication, Silvadene, which is used in burn patients.
  • Do not apply petroleum jelly, benzocaine, lidocaine, or butter to the sunburn. They make the symptoms worse and can prevent healing. These medications can also cause allergic rashes, compounding the problem. That said, there are remedies available over-the-counter advertised for sunburn which contain these ingredients, so it's important to read labels.
  • If blisters are present, dry bandages may help prevent infection. Do not puncture blisters as that may slow healing and also increase the risk of infection. You may wish to apply antibiotic cream to the blistered skin.
  • Over-the-counter medications, like Advil (ibuprofen), may help to relieve pain from sunburn. (Remember, do NOT give aspirin to children due to the risk of Reye's syndrome.)
  • Do not wash burned skin with harsh soap.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. It is easy to become dehydrated with a severe sunburn.
  • Wear loose natural clothing, such as cotton or silk.
  • Watch for any signs of infection, such as increasing redness (keep in mind that your burn will continue to redden for several hours after leaving the sun), fever, increasing pain, or pus-appearing discharge.

Warning Signs of Heat Exhaustion

The symptoms you experience as sunburn may actually be due to other related conditions. Call a doctor immediately if you have signs of heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or dehydration. These signs include:

  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Rapid pulse or rapid breathing
  • Extreme thirst, no urine output or sunken eyes
  • Pale, clammy or cool skin
  • Nausea, fever, chills or rash
  • Your eyes hurt and are sensitive to light
  • Severe, painful blisters

Cancer and Aging Skin

Since sunburn indicates underlying damage to the DNA in skin cells, it should be avoided if at all possible. Chronic overexposure to the sun is associated with skin cancer, mostly the basal cell and squamous cell types. A history of three or more blistering sunburns before age 20 also greatly increases your risk of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Too much sun also causes wrinkling, premature aging (photoaging), age spots (lentigines), and cataracts. Don't forget to wear sunglasses.

Preventing Sunburns

An ounce of prevention is clearly worth a pound of cure when it comes to sun exposure and sunburn. What's often forgotten is, that in addition to sunscreen (see below) there are many things you can do to reduce your risk of a sunburn.

  • Protect your skin with clothing - loose fitting clothes of breathable fabric are best
  • Use an umbrella
  • Avoid the sun during the peak hours, between roughly 10 am and 2 pm
  • Choose clothing with an SPF fabric
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face

What to Know About Sunscreens

What people really need to know is that grabbing any broad-spectrum sunscreen off the shelf at your pharmacy may not be enough. There are many sunscreen myths but one that is of special note is the myth that UVA rays are not harmful.

Many sunscreens offer protection against UVB rays, but fewer protect against UVA rays. In the past, we paid little attention to UVA rays, but we now know that UVA rays can be just as dangerous to your skin

In order to find a sunscreen which will offer you protection against UVA rays, you will need to become familiar with the ingredients which provide UVA protection, and if so, how long-lasting the protection will last.

The Sun and Vitamin D

As a final note, it's important to point out that "reasonable" sun exposure without sunscreen may not be a bad idea, and it's likely the public will be hearing more about this in the near future as dermatology organizations rethink their recommendations about sun exposure.

While sun exposure may raise your risk of skin cancer, a lack of vitamin D is a risk factor for dozens of cancers as well as other medical conditions. On top of this is the fact that the majority of Americans have a deficiency of this important vitamin.

As far as sources of vitamin D, it's hard to get enough of this in your diet. This leaves moderate and reasonable sun exposure (10 minutes may be plenty) and supplements. The good thing is that you don't have to play a guessing game. A simple blood test at your doctor's office can let you know whether your vitamin D level is deficient or on the low side of normal, and your doctor can recommend ways to help you raise this.

Bottom Line

Several tips for managing sunburn are noted above, but it's important to reinforce that these are all methods to help you cope with the discomfort of the burn, but they do nothing to heal the burn. Prevention remains the best strategy, but even protection requires that you educate yourself about non-sunscreen methods of sun safety, and the ingredients in a sunscreen that are needed to truly protect yourself from both UVB and UVA rays.

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