Sunburn is a visible reaction of the skin's exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, the invisible rays that are part of sunlight. The signs of a sunburn may not appear for a few hours, and the full effect to your skin may take up to 24 hours to appear. Ultraviolet rays can also cause invisible damage to the skin. Excessive and/or multiple sunburns cause premature aging of the skin and lead to skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the US, and exposure to the sun is the leading cause of skin cancer.
The following are the most common symptoms of a sunburn. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- Swelling of the skin
- Dry, itching, and peeling skin days after the burn
Severe sunburns may cause a person to go into shock, which is characterized by fainting, low blood pressure, and severe weakness. Immediate medical attention is necessary if this occurs. By the time redness and pain appear, the damage has been done. Pain is usually at its worst six to 48 hours after the burn. While the symptoms of a sunburn may be temporary, the skin damage is permanent. The symptoms of a sunburn may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.
Sunburns usually heal themselves in a couple of weeks. However, depending on the severity and location of the sunburn, the following may be recommended. Always consult your physician for more information.
- To alleviate pain and heat (skin is warm to the touch) caused by the sunburn, take a cool (not cold) bath, or gently apply cool, wet compresses to the skin.
- Take a pain reliever such as aspirin (children and teenagers should never be given aspirin because of the danger of Reye syndrome), acetaminophen, or ibuprofen.
- To rehydrate (add moisture to) the skin and help reduce swelling, apply topical moisturizing cream, aloe, or 1 percent hydrocortisone cream.
- Stay in the shade until the sunburn is healed. Additional sun exposure will only increase the severity and pain of the sunburn.
If the sunburn is severe and blisters occur, consult your physician right away.
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Last reviewed: 6/1/2011