Sunburn affects as many as 1 in 3 American adults every year and about 2 in 3 American children every summer. It is one of the most common skin conditions but most of us do not consider it to be serious. Sunburn quickly resolves within a few days although the symptoms of more severe cases can persist for weeks. However, sunburn can have both immediate and long term complications, such as skin infections, premature aging and it is also linked to skin cancer.
What happens in sunburn?
Human skin has a limited capacity to withstand ultraviolet light exposure. Depending on the intensity of the source, sunburn can arise within 20 minutes of sunlight exposure although symptoms may only become evident within 2 to 4 hours. Furthermore, sunburn is not only caused by sunlight exposure. Even other sources of ultraviolet light can irritate and damage the skin, such as with tanning beds.
Prolonged exposure or intense sunlight causes tissue damage which leads to inflammation. Symptoms like heat, redness, swelling and pain are all a consequence of inflammation. These are all typical symptoms of sunburn. Although inflammation is intended to prevent tissue damage, it is also important to minimize it once the cause has been removed. This helps to ease symptoms and allow for healing of the damaged area.
Therefore treatment for sunburn needs to focus on minimizing inflammation while preventing any further ultraviolet light exposure or at least reducing it. The skin is prone to infections at this point particularly with scratching which causes tiny breaks and introduces bacteria into the lesion. Healing takes place gradually and no medication can reduce the damage that has already been done to the sunburned skin.
Read more on sunburn skin rash.
Home Treatment for Sunburn
Most people do not seek medical attention for sunburn. It is managed at home with various over-the-counter topical applications and sometimes even home remedies. The condition resolves quickly without medical treatment. However, it is important to understand when medical treatment should be sought and it should be done quickly in these cases. Infections can sometimes be life-threatening.
Any treatment, whether conservative measures or medication, will not prevent damage to the skin as this has already occurred once sunburn becomes evident. However, treatment can help to minimize the severity of symptoms and prevent some of the complications. When there are symptoms like extensive blisters, oozing discharge or bleeding then medical attention is needed immediately.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen can help reduce inflammation and provide relief for symptoms like pain. Analgesics also help with pain control but anesthetics should not be applied on the skin as it can trigger allergic reactions. Antihistamines may provide some relief from the itching and in severe cases steroid creams and even steroid pills may be prescribed for sunburn. Antihistamines may help with relieving any itching.
Cool the Skin
Cooling the skin helps to reduce inflammation. Never apply ice directly to the skin. Sitting in a cool airconditioned room or applying a cold water compress on the skin is sufficient. Even a cool shower or bath can help. Do not go out into the sun again for long periods until the inflammation eases.
Try to Rest
Resting has several benefits when sunburn occurs. It helps to keep the body temperature down, especially during periods of hot weather. Dehydration often accompanies sunburn and resting will allow the body time to recover. Try to rest in a cooled room and do not use covers made of wool which may further irritate the skin.
Drink Plenty of Fluid
Sweating is the body’s way to cool the skin surface. Often there is significant fluid and electrolyte loss with sweating in situations where sunburn may occur. Therefore fluid replenishment may be necessary. Oral rehydration solution (ORS) is the better option as it contains the optimum blance of fluid and electrolytes needed by the body.
Read more on dehydration.
A number of non-medicated creams, lotions and gels can help to soothe the skin and prevent drying. It can also minimize the discomfort of peeling skin which occurs with severe sunburn. If necessary, a medicated cream (like hydrocortisone) can be used to ease the pain and itching.
Do Not Touch Blisters
Blisters occur with severe sunburn and underneath the surface the body is healing the injured skin. Therefore it is important not to burst the blisters. Not only does it disrupt the healing process but it can also expose the underlying tissue which may then become infected.
Many people experience itching with the pain causedby sunburn. However, scratching should be avoided entirely as it is like to cause breaks in the skin. This allows bacteria on the skin surface or in the environment to enter deeper tissue and cause an infection.
Prevent Further Sunburn
It may seem obvious but without care a person may become further sunburned from ongoing sun or UV light exposure. Long periods of time in the sun and tanning beds must be avoided at all costs. The skin is sensitive after a sunburn and even shorter periods of time can lead to sunburn.
Protect the Skin
It is always important to protect the skin from sunlight but more so after sunburn. Further direct sunlight exposure can damage the skin further. A sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) above 15 must be used. The type of clothing is equally important. The textile should not allow sunlight to penetrate through it.
Treating the Face
Most people tend to be more concerned about sunburn on the face as it can be unsightly and embarrasing to some. The treatment for sunburn on the face is largely the same as for the rest of the body. Never use an concealing makeup to attempt to mask the sunburn.
The nose is often more prone to sunburn and it is important to follow the treatment approach discussed above. Extra sunscreen needs to be applied on the nose for added protection. However, the entire face also needs to be shielded with sunscreen as it is one of the parts of the body that is more likely to be sunburned since it is not usually covered.