Summertime means days spent outside at the beach, the park, or just in your backyard. Have you ever been in the sun and then thought you had a sunburn? Even on cloudy days, you can develop red, sore skin that is the hallmark of sunburn. Don’t suffer from the pain and itching. Learn how to prevent sunburn and how to treat it if you do have it.
Why Do You Get Sunburn?
Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) rays. These rays are part of the light that sunlight provides, but over-exposure can cause skin damage. UV rays cause the skin to produce the pigment melanin. Melanin makes your skin darker to protect itself by blocking the rays from causing damage. That’s why people get tan from being in the sun. But most people don’t make enough melanin to protect their skin from all UV rays. When UV rays damage your skin, you get a sunburn.
During the summer, the sun’s rays are at a steep angle, making them stronger and more focused. People who have light skin, blue eyes, or blond or red hair don’t produce very much melanin. They have a higher risk for sunburn because their skin doesn’t protect itself well. Anyone working outdoors or spending time outside on warm, sunny days, especially at a high altitude, is also at risk. If you've had sunburn before, you are at risk for getting it again. Sun lamps and tanning beds emit UV rays. You can get sunburn from those too. UV rays can travel through clouds. If you’re not protected on cloudy days, you can still get a sunburn.
How Do You Know If You Have Sunburn?
Sunburn usually starts a few hours after you’ve been in the sun. Your skin will be bright pink or red and may feel warm to the touch. Sunburn is often painful. Sometimes, the skin will look swollen or small, fluid-filled blisters will develop. When damaged skin starts to peel, it may be itchy, and the new skin underneath may feel tender.
Severe sunburn causes headache, fever, and nausea. It’s extremely painful. You should talk to a doctor if you have severe sunburn or if your sunburn doesn’t improve in a few days. If the blisters are open and infected with yellow drainage, you should also talk with a doctor right away.
Can You Treat Sunburn at Home?
Minor sunburn can be treated at home. Use lotions or gels with aloe vera or calamine to relieve pain and add moisture to your skin. Taking an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen or naproxen can help with the pain. Cool your skin down by placing wet towels or washcloths on the sunburn. Remember to drink plenty of water! Sunburn dries out your skin and can cause dehydration.
If you have blisters, don’t break them. If they do break, wash the area with gentle soap and water, then apply an antibiotic ointment. Cover open blisters with a bandage to protect them from getting infected. If there is yellow drainage from the blisters, contact a doctor.
Damaged skin will usually peel away after a few days. Keep using a moisturizing cream or lotion to help stop the itching. While your sunburn heals, stay out of the sun or protect your skin when you’re outside.
How Can You Prevent Sunburn?
The best way not to suffer from sunburn is to protect your skin from UV damage. A good start is to wear a hat to protect your face and lips. The skin on your lips can get sunburn too. Wear sunglasses with UV blocking lenses to protect your eyes. Dark clothes that have a tight thread weave will block more UV rays than light-colored, loose fabrics. If you’re going to be in the sun often or for long periods, look for clothing with UPF – UV Protection Factor.
Use a sunscreen lotion. A good sunscreen has an SPF factor of 30+. Use sunscreen 15-30 minutes before you go out into the sun and re-apply it every 40-80 minutes. Apply sunscreen more often if you’re in the water. Don’t use sunscreen that’s expired or more than three years old. Sunscreen that’s too old breaks down and doesn’t protect well.
Certain medications can cause your skin to be more sensitive to sunlight. If you are taking antihistamines, antibiotics, antidepressants, ibuprofen, antipsychotics, or cholesterol-lowering drugs, talk with a doctor or pharmacist to find out how sunlight may affect you.
You can prevent sunburn by covering up and wearing sunscreen. If you do get a sunburn, keep your skin cool and moist until it heals. Contact a doctor if you think you have severe sunburn or an infection in your skin. Play it safe and enjoy the summer!