Sunburn

Is this your symptom?

  • Red, painful skin after being exposed to the sun

Some Basics...

  • Sunburn is skin damage from exposure to the sun or ultraviolet (UV) light.
  • Sun or UV light exposure can also cause eye damage. This is called photokeratitis.
  • Sunburn may cause a first-degree (redness and pain) or a second-degree (blistering) burn to the sun-exposed areas of the body.
  • Long-term sun exposure increases the risk for skin cancer and causes aging of the skin.

Symptoms

  • First Degree Sunburn: Most sunburn is a first-degree burn which turns the skin pink or red. The pain and swelling starts at 4 hours, peaks at 24 hours, and improves after 48 hours.
  • Second Degree: Prolonged sun exposure can cause blistering and a second-degree burn.
  • Third Degree: Sunburn never causes a third-degree burn or scarring.

Causes

  • The Sun
  • Tanning lamps
  • Broken mercury-vapor lamps (overhead lighting): Damaged mercury-vapor (metal halide) lamps are known to cause UV-radiation "sunburns" and photokeratitis (corneal irritation).

What is Photokeratitis?

Photokeratitis can be thought of as a sunburn of the cornea. Exposure to intense light can cause corneal irritation (keratitis), especially if a person uses inadequate eye protection.

  • Pain: Usually bilateral eye pain, tearing, and light bothers eyes.
  • Vision Loss: Usually minimal vision change (haziness) to none. More severe photokeratitis can cause blurred vision. All people with blurred vision require medical evaluation. In skiers, photokeratitis is referred to as "snow blindness."
  • Causes: This is most commonly seen in individuals with inadequate eye protection while outside on a bright sunny day (water sports, snow skiing). It can also occur in people who do not use eye protection while using a tanning booth. This can also occur in welders.

When to Call for Sunburn

Call 911 Now

  • Passed out (fainted)
  • Trouble waking up or acting confused
  • Very weak (can't stand)
  • You think you have a life-threatening emergency

Call Doctor Now or Go to ER

  • Severe eye pain or blurry eyesight after sun exposure (welding or other significant light exposure)
  • Severe pain and not better after taking pain medication
  • Looks infected (draining pus, red streaks, or is tender to touch after 2 days)
  • You feel weak or very sick
  • You think you need to be seen, and the problem is urgent

Call Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • Many small blisters at the burn site
  • Any blisters on the face
  • Blister larger than 1 inch (2.5 cm)
  • You think you need to be seen, but the problem is not urgent

Call Doctor During Office Hours

  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • Mild sunburn
  • Sunscreen and protection from the sun, questions about

Care Advice

Treatment of Mild Sunburn

  1. What You Should Know:
    • Sunburn is skin damage from exposure to the sun or ultraviolet (UV) light. Sun or UV light exposure can also cause eye damage.
    • You can treat mild sunburn and mild photokeratitis at home.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Pain Medicine for Sunburn:
    • You can take one of the following drugs if you have pain: acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), or naproxen (Aleve).
    • They are over-the-counter (OTC) pain drugs. You can buy them at the drugstore.
    • Use the lowest amount of a drug that makes your pain feel better.
    • Some people think ibuprofen or naproxen works better for sunburn pain than acetaminophen.
    • Acetaminophen is safer than ibuprofen or naproxen in people over 65 years old.
    • Read the instructions and warnings on the package insert for all medicines you take.
  3. Hydrocortisone Cream: Put on 1% hydrocortisone cream as soon as you can. Do this 3 times a day for 2 days. If you use it right away, it may help with the swelling and pain. If you don't have any, use a moisturizing cream until you can get some.
    • Keep the cream in the fridge. It feels better if put on cold.
    • Sold OTC in the United States as 0.5% and 1% cream.
    • Sold OTC in Canada as 0.5% cream.
  4. Cool Baths:
    • Put a cool wet towel on the burned area a few times a day. This will help with the pain and burning.
    • For larger sunburns, take a cool shower or bath for 5-10 minutes. Be careful to avoid getting a chill. Add 2 oz. (57 grams) baking soda per bath. Avoid putting soap on the sunburn.
  5. Extra Fluids: Drink extra water on the first day. This will replace lost fluids and prevent dehydration and dizziness.
  6. Broken Blisters:
    • For broken blisters, trim off the dead skin with small sharp scissors. Clean the scissors with rubbing alcohol before and after use. Trimming the skin helps to prevent infection.
    • Put antibiotic ointment (like Bacitracin) on the raw skin under broken blisters. Put it on 2 times a day for 3 days.
    • Caution: Leave unbroken blisters alone. Unbroken blisters protect the skin and help it to heal.
  7. What to Expect: Pain most often stops after 2 or 3 days. Skin flaking and peeling most often happen 5-7 days after the sunburn.
  8. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Pain becomes severe and is not better after taking pain medication
    • Pain is not better after 3 days
    • Sunburn looks infected
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Mild Photokeratitis

  1. Photokeratitis:
    • Definition: Photokeratitis can be thought of as a sunburn of the cornea. Being exposed to intense light can cause corneal irritation. This often happens if a person does not use good eye protection.
    • Causes: This often happens to people who use poor eye protection in the sun. It can happen while snow skiing or playing water sports. It also happens to people who use tanning booths without eye protection. This can also happen to welders.
  2. Eye Treatment:
    • Put cool wet compresses onto your eyes.
    • Try to rest with your eyes closed.
    • Do not wear contacts until your eyes get better.
    • Avoid rubbing your eyes.
  3. What to Expect:
    • Symptoms should fully go away over the next 24 hours. There should be no permanent damage to the cornea.
    • You can prevent future eye problems from the sun by wearing sunglasses.
  4. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Severe pain is not better after pain medicine
    • Pain lasts more than 3 days
    • Pus or yellow/green discharge occurs
    • Blurry eyesight occurs
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

How to Prevent Sunburn

  1. Reduce Sun Exposure:
    • Try to avoid being in the sun between 10 AM and 3 PM.
    • You can get a sunburn while swimming. Water only blocks some of the UV radiation.
  2. Clothing:
    • Wear a wide-brim hat; it protects your face and neck from the sun.
    • When outdoors, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  3. Use Sunscreen:
    • Put sunscreen on areas that cannot be covered by clothing. An adult needs about 1 oz. (28 grams) of sunscreen lotion to cover the whole body.
    • You should put on sunscreen again every 2-4 hours. You should also put it on again after swimming or sweating.
    • A sunscreen with a rating of SPF 15-30 should be used. Sunscreens over SPF 30 only give you a little extra sun protection.
    • Sunscreens help prevent sunburn, but do not prevent all skin damage. Sun exposure can still increase your risk of skin aging and skin cancer.
  4. Vitamins C and E: These are anti-oxidants. This means that they help prevent sun damage to cells in your skin. Taking these vitamins may help reduce the sunburn reaction.
    • The adult dose of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is 2 grams. Take this 1 time a day.
    • Adult dose of Vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol) is 1000 IU. Take this 1 time a day.
    • Caution: Prevention is the key. Try to reduce your time in the sun and use sunscreens.
    • Read all package instructions.

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the 'Call Your Doctor' symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.


Last Reviewed: 8/19/2017 1:15:45 AM
Last Updated: 5/7/2017 1:36:20 PM

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Sunburn - Face

This individual has a first degree sunburn on the face. The skin is red and painful. There is no blistering.

Sunburn can be prevented by wearing a hat (best) or by applying a sunscreen lotion with a SPF of 15 or higher.

First Aid - Heat Exhaustion
  • Move the victim to a cool shady area. If possible, move into an air-conditioned place.
  • The victim should lie down. Elevate the feet.
  • Undress victim (except for underwear) so the body surface can give off heat.
  • Sponge the entire body surface continuously with cool water. Fan the victim to increase evaporation.
  • Give as much cold water or sports drink (e.g., Gatorade, Powerade) as the victim can tolerate. An adult or teen with heat exhaustion should drink 2-3 cups (480-720 ml) of liquids right away to replace what was lost. Then the adult or teen should drink approximately 1 cup (240 ml) every 15 minutes for the next 1-2 hours.

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