Sunburn Patient Information Fact Sheet

What is sunburn?
Sunburn is the reddening of the skin when exposed to the sun or other ultraviolet light. There are two types of UV radiation that may affect the skin, UVA and UVB. Too much UVA exposure can cause wrinkles and aging of the skin. UVB rays have been linked to skin cancer development. Excessive sun exposure can seriously affect health and may lead to the development of skin cancer. More than 1 million people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, making it the most common form of cancer in the country that can be prevented.

What are the symptoms of sunburn?
Although the first signs of sunburn may take a few hours to appear, the full effects may not be visible until 24 hours later. Possible symptoms include red tender skin, blisters that appear hours to days later, peeling skin, and serious reactions (eg, fever, chills, nausea, rash). Symptoms of sunburn are usually temporary, but skin damage is often permanent and can have serious long-term effects. The pain is the worst between 6 and 48 hours after sun exposure. Blistering may occur in severe cases of sunburn.

What are the causes of sunburn?
Sunburn is caused by excess exposure to the sun or UV light. Sun rays are the strongest between 10AM and 2PM. Infants and children are extremely sensitive to sun exposure, thus increasing the risk of sunburn. People with fair skin also have a higher risk of sunburn, but even dark skin can burn and should be protected. Antibiotics such as doxycycline can also increase the susceptibility to sunburns.

How is sunburn treated?
For mild cases of sunburn try taking a cool shower or bath, or place cold wet washcloths on the burn. Avoid using products that contain benzocaine, lidocaine, or petroleum (eg, Vaseline). Dry bandages may help prevent infections if blisters are present. Apply moisturizing cream or aloe to relieve discomfort from blisters. NSAIDs such as ibuprofen may help relieve pain from sunburn. Avoid administering aspirin to children. Cortisone cream may reduce inflammation. Remember to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

Contact a healthcare provider immediately if a fever with sunburn or signs of shock, heat exhaustion, dehydration, or other serious reactions occur. These signs include dizziness, high pulse, rapid breathing, extreme thirst, sunken eyes, no urine output, nausea, fever, chills, rash, pale, clammy or cool skin, sensitivity to light, or severe painful blisters.