What is a Sunburn?

A sunburn is a type of burn on the skin that occurs after being exposed to UV rays from sunlight or sunlamps for too long. They are very common and usually heal within a few days. More severe burns may take a few weeks to resolve. Repeated sunburns can cause immediate problems such as vision changes and heat-related illness. There are also numerous potential long-term complications, including skin cancer, cataracts, cold sores, brown spots, and premature wrinkling. Any part of the body that is exposed to the sun is susceptible to burning.

As with any skin burn, there are varying degrees of severity in sunburns. The least damaging leave the skin red and warm and are only mildly uncomfortable. For more severe burns, it can be difficult to control the pain even with medication. The worst cases may experience damaged nerve endings and the patient may have to visit their doctor. Several factors dictate how severe a burn will become – time of day, proximity to reflective surfaces, time of year, the day’s UV index, and many more. Also, people who are fair skinned tend to burn more easily.

What are the Symptoms of Sunburn?

Sunburns are easily recognizable. In addition to skin that has turned red and warm, a person may experience various symptoms depending on the severity:

  • Blisters
  • Swelling
  • Peeling
  • Rough skin
  • Itchiness
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Rashes
  • Fever
  • Headache

Sunburn Causes

Sunburn occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to the sun. Our skin contains cells which produce melanin, a pigment which helps to protect the skin from sun damage. Those with darker skin tend to produce more melanin than those with light skin, and will, therefore, develop a deep tan after exposure to the sun. For those with light skin, less melanin means skin is more susceptible to burning.

Sunburn occurs when UV rays from the sun damage the DNA in the body’s cells. The body then tries to heal the skin by redirecting blood to the damaged cells. This leaves the skin flushed – which explains the bright red appearance – inflamed and, in the worst cases, blistered.

How is Sunburn Treated?

While wearing sunscreen and minimizing sun exposure can usually prevent them, most sunburns are easily treated at home. Cool showers and ice packs can help alleviate some of the discomfort. Additionally, there are several lotions and moisturizers on the market specifically formulated to treat sunburns, most of which contain aloe vera or topical steroids. Increased fluid intake will help minimize the risk of dehydration that comes with

Sunburn Prevention

The only way to prevent sunburn is to protect the skin from the sun’s rays. This could be done by:

  • Avoiding being outdoors when the sun is hottest
  • Staying in shaded areas
  • Wearing lightweight clothing to cover as much skin as possible
  • Wearing sunscreen

A sunscreen should be SPF 30 or higher, water resistant, and offer broad-spectrum protection. This means that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays, and can help to prevent sunburn in the short term, and skin cancer and other complications of long-term sun exposure.

Sunscreen should be applied 15 minutes before going outdoors and reapplied every two hours, or after swimming or sweating a lot, even if it is waterproof. Around one ounce of sunscreen, which is enough to fill a shot glass, is usually the necessary amount for covering exposed areas of the body when wearing, for example, shorts and a t-shirt. This will vary depending on your body size.

It’s important to note that sunscreens can become ineffective with time, so be sure to check the expiry date of a sunscreen before applying it. FDA-approved sunscreens must maintain their potency for three years, but check the expiration date anyway if you haven’t used it for a while. Changes in consistency, color or scent are all signs that a sunscreen has expired and shouldn’t be used.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
November 30, 2017