sunburn treatment

How to a treat sunburn?

Written by: Ayesha Khan, MBBS

In a Nutshell

  • Sunburn is characterized by hot, painful, and red skin after prolonged exposure to strong sun
  • Management revolves around cold compresses, moisturizing & self-care (i.e. avoiding sun, loose clothing, and pain management)
  • Most cases resolve completely within 7 to 10 days

Sunburn is damaging

Sunburn as the name suggests, is redness, soreness, and blistering of skin due to excessive sun exposure. Although sun is a great source of vitamin D, but too much exposure to sun without any protection or sunscreen may cause sunburn. It is very commonly reported among beachgoers during summer season as sun is much stronger during summers.

Sunburn is the result of inflammation due to the damage to the outer layers of skin caused by ultraviolet radiations.

In case of mild sunburn skin becomes red, sore, or painful that is followed by peeling after 4-7 days of initial sun exposure. However, in severe cases it can cause:

  • Blistering
  • Infection
  • Dehydration
  • Severe skin burns
  • Electrolyte imbalance

Evidence-Based Treatment Regimen

The first step in the management of sunburn is to stay away from sun.

Cool bath and showers to relieve discomfort

Sunburn management should be initiated as soon as you develop the earliest symptoms such as painful burning or soreness of skin. Cover yourself and immediately move away from sun. Once you are indoors (or under cover), cool down your skin to minimize inflammation.

  • The cold compressors can help a great deal in soothing the burning and reducing the damage to skin. Apply cold compresses every 2-4 hours for 15 minutes.
  • You can also use ice water but avoid using ice directly on the burns.
  • Cool showers twice a day also helps but avoid taking long showers, it may make your skin dry and further aggravate the skin irritation. Try to keep your showers under 10 minutes.
  • Do not rub your skin after getting out of shower, instead gently pat skin dry and apply moisturizer immediately to alleviate dryness and discomfort.

Use moisturizer containing aloe vera gel or soy while skin is still damp

After getting out of shower apply a soothing moisturizer (preferably with aloe Vera gel or soy as an ingredient) or as frequently as you like. Avoid using petroleum jelly or any other oil-based ointment as it may trap heat that can make your sunburn worse. Try to moisturize your skin daily until your condition improves.

Get pain killers

You can take over-the-counter painkillers like Ibuprofen or Aspirin to relieve pain, discomfort, and inflammation

Hydrate yourself

Intense and prolonged sun exposure can dehydrate your skin and body. According to Dr Bracken sunburn draw out fluid from your body and skin. So, make sure to rehydrate yourself by drinking plenty of fluids and electrolytes. Generally 8-10 cups of water per day are considered sufficient, but avoid drinking clear water when you trying to rehydrate after a serious sunburn. Instead drink 2-3 liters of Gatorade or electrolyte rich fluids in first 24 hours of sunburn.

Small blisters

Sometimes in case of second-degree sunburns, blisters may appear on your skin. These blisters will heal on their own so try not to pop them to minimize the risk of infection and further skin damage.

Treat skin peeling gently

Within a few days after sunburn, your skin may start to peel off. Don’t get alarmed or nervous as your body is just getting rid of damaged superficial layers of skin. During this peeling treat your skin gently and moisturize it continuously.

In case of severe sun burn use hydrocortisone cream

Hydrocortisone cream is effective at easing pain and discomfort. It will also expedite the healing process. Apply once or twice a day or as advised by your doctor.

Let skin breath

Try to wear loose clothing until your skin heals completely to alleviate pain, irritation, and discomfort.

Prevent further damage

Prevention is always a better treatment. During healing process, you should avoid further sun exposure, stay indoors and wear sunscreen or SPF as well as protective clothing while going out.

Nuances/ Safety

Most cases of sunburn can be managed at home without GP’s health; however, if you are experiencing any of the symptoms below, speak to a healthcare provider:

  • You have developed high grade fever, shivering or impaired consciousness
  • If your sunburn is not improving or if you have developed severe blistering or infection of skin
  • If affected person is at the extremes of age (very old or very young)
  • If you have developed muscle cramps, extreme fatigue, tiredness, headache etc.

Strength of Evidence:A
The recommendations and management tools presented in this article are advised by American Association of Dermatology and National Health Services.

Our Ruling

Sunburn refers to inflammation or damage to the superficial layers of skin due to intense exposure to sun. Although, the skin may heal in 7-10 days but keep in mind that excessive or frequent exposure to strong sun without any protection can make you more prone to certain skin cancers as well as premature aging.

Our Sources

  1. American Academy of Dermatology - Treating sunburns
  2. Skin Cancer - Sunburn as a risk factor
  3. Natural sunburn home remedies
  4. NHS - Sunburn management
  5. NHS - Treating sunburns
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