Sunburn results from too much sun or sun-equivalent exposure. Almost everyone has been sunburned or will become sunburned at some time. Anyone who visits a beach, goes fishing, works in the yard, or simply is out in the sun can get sunburned. Improper tanning bed use is also a source of sunburn. Although seldom fatal, severe sunburn or sun poisoning can be disabling and cause quite a bit of discomfort.

One or more blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence more than double a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Morever, a person’s risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns at any age.

Sunburn Causes

Sunburn is literally a burn on the skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This burn causes inflammation of the skin. Injury from sunburn can begin within 30 minutes of exposure.

  • UVA and UVB refer to different wavelengths in the light spectrum. UVB is more damaging to the skin, especially for risk of skin cancer. Both UVA and UVB are responsible for photoaging (premature aging of the skin and wrinkles) and sunburn. Tanning beds produce both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Individuals who travel to the southern United States, regions close to the equator, and places at high altitudes carry a higher risk for sunburn.
  • Light-skinned and fair-haired people are at greater risk of sunburn.
  • Prior recent sun exposure and prior skin injury are risks for sunburn, even in limited exposure to the sun. Normal limited exposure to UV radiation produces beneficial vitamin D in the skin.

Sunburn Symptoms

  • Mild and uncomplicated cases of sunburn usually result in minor skin redness, and pain.
  • Initially, the skin turns red about 2-6 hours after exposure and feels irritated. The peak effects are noted at 12-24 hours.
  • More severe cases (sun poisoning) are complicated by severe skin burning and blistering, massive fluid loss (dehydration), electrolyte imbalance, and possibly infection.
  • Untreated sunburn and with enough exposure, a person can experience shock (poor circulation to vital organs) and even death.

Other common symptoms may include:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Nausea or vomiting, or both
  • Flulike symptoms
  • Blistering may range from a very fine blister that is only found when you begin to “peel” to very large water-filled blisters with red, tender, raw skin underneath. When blisters pop, the skin that covered the blisters will slough off.
  • Skin loss (peeling) at about 4-7 days after exposure

Some individuals experience a sun rash (sometimes called sun poisoning) due to a condition called polymorphous light eruption (PMLE). About 10% of Americans are affected by PMLE, a reaction that does not appear to be linked to drugs or diseases.

Symptoms of PMLE are a mild to severe skin rash, usually appearing within 30 minutes to several hours of sun exposure. The rash may be itchy and have these characteristics:

  • Small bumps all over the body, predominantly in sun-exposed areas
  • Sun rash progresses to dense clumps of bumps
  • Hives, usually on the arms, lower legs, and chest

Call your doctor when:

If you feel a sunburn is severe. The affected person most likely will be asked how severe their condition is and if they have any other significant health problems. The doctor can then make the decision to treat the individual at home or in the office or refer them to an emergency department.

If a person suffers any of these conditions with sunburn they should go to a hospital’s emergency department:

  • Severe pain
  • Severe blistering
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting
  • An acute problem with another medical condition


The best prevention is to avoid the sun. This is often not practical or desired many times.

  • Avoid the sun during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Wear wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, long pants and UV protected sunglasses.
  • Sunscreens and sun protection
    • Use sunblock. Pay attention to the sun protection factor (SPF) and whether or not PABA is in the product. Some people’s skin is sensitive to PABA. PABA should be avoided in children younger than 6 months because it can cause skin irritation. Because of the tendency to produce irritation, most sunscreens no longer contain this chemical.
    • The higher the SPF number, the more protection the sun-blocking agent may have. SPF is actually a ratio of the time it takes to produce a skin reaction on protected and unprotected skin. Thus, a 30 SPF sunscreen would in theory allow a person to be exposed 30 times longer than with no sunscreen. However, this is usually not true in practice because the amount of sun exposure depends upon a number of factors including the length of exposure, time of day, geographic location, and weather conditions.
    • The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a “broad-spectrum” (UVA and UVB) waterproof sunscreen of at least SPF 30 be used year-round.
    • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2012 will require the industry to change labels to include protective potential against both UVA and UVB radiation. UVA radiation (previously not included in labeling) is responsible for a significant portion of sun damage. Manufacturers will no longer be permitted to claim that sunscreens are “waterproof” or “sweatproof” or identify their products as “sunblocks.” Water resistant sunscreen claims must have information in regard to how much time a person can expect to have the declared SPF level of protection while sweating or swimming.
    • People seldom apply enough sunscreen or rarely reapply it. Sunscreen should be applied in generous amounts in layers and reapplied after being exposed.
    • The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using at least a shot glass worth of sunscreen and reapplying every 2 hours.
    • Use lip balm with SPF 30. Sweating and swimming degrade the effectiveness of sunscreen.
    • Not all sunscreens are water resistant, and even those that are still need to be reapplied regularly.
  • Certain drugs can sensitize the skin to radiation injury. If a person takes them, avoid the sun. A health care practitioner or pharmacist can further advise you about your medications and sun sensitivity.
    • Most likely to cause sun sensitivity are antibiotics, antipsoriatics (prescribed for skin conditions), and acne medicines.
    • The herbal drug, St. John’s wort, is also thought to make a person more vulnerable to sunburn.
  • Mind-altering drugs (including alcohol) can diminish a person’s awareness of getting sunburned and should be avoided.
  • Short and sequential exposure times can lead to skin pigment changes, which most of us call tanning. This can lead to increased sun tolerance but can also lead to long-term problems such as skin cancer. Getting a tan is often a primary reason people go out in the sun with maximum skin exposed in the first place.
  • Sunburn is most common in children and younger adults.
  • Avoid tanning beds entirely

    . Users of indoor tanners are 74% more likely to develop melanoma than non-users. Those who use indoor tanners are also 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma.


Sunburn - skin damage

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