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How to treat sunburn

Woman rubbing sun cream into her skin
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Sunburn is an inflammatory response that your skin has to ultraviolet (UV) radiation damage and is caused by prolonged exposure to the sun. It usually heals on its own but there are ways in which you can speed up the process.

Read on to find out how to identify sunburn and how you can treat it.

Symptoms of sunburn

If you do not protect yourself when exposed to the sun, such as by using an SPF rated sunscreen, you risk getting sunburn. Whilst the most prominent symptom of sunburn is red or reddish skin that is hot to the touch, there are a range of other symptoms as well. These include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Itching
  • Peeling skin
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

How long does sunburn last?

Sunburn will usually subside within seven days but there are steps that you can take to reduce the symptoms and promote faster healing. The first thing that you should do upon spotting sunburn symptoms is move out of the sun.

You can cool your skin by taking a tepid shower or by patting it with a cold cloth. Drinking plenty of water will also help your body to cool down and prevent dehydration from sun exposure. Applying after sun or aloe vera gel will help soothe the skin.

Symptoms of sun poisoning

Sun poisoning is an extreme form of sunburn. It usually occurs with the same symptoms as sunburn but can require medical treatment to prevent complications. Symptoms of sun poisoning include:

  • Severe redness and pain
  • Skin rash
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Dehydration
  • Upset stomach
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting

Treatment for sunburn

Getting sunburnt can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful. To help soothe the skin and promote healing, it is beneficial to start treating sunburn as soon as you spot the symptoms. Treatment for sunburn includes:

  • Cool the skin. Take frequent cool showers or baths to help relieve pain
  • Apply after sun or aloe vera gel to soothe and moisturise the skin
  • Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration
  • Take over the counter pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce discomfort and swelling
  • Don’t pick or peel skin. Your skin may naturally peel but don’t pick it or break blisters. Keep broken blisters clean with soapy water and antibiotic ointment
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes to prevent rubbing
  • Wear clothing that covers your skin when outdoors to protect against further sun exposure and continue to wear sunscreen

Are there levels of sunburn?

Whilst all sunburn is a result of extended exposure to UV rays, there are varying levels. If you do get sunburnt, it’s important to be able to identify the severity of the burn so that you can select the right treatment options.

The table below describes each level of sunburn and describes the most typical symptoms:

Type of sunburn Description and symptoms
First-degree burn This is the most common type of sunburn. It usually presents as redness of the skin, with slight tenderness and pain. The affected skin may become dry and peel.
Second-degree burn This type of sunburn affects the top two layers of your skin. It is characterised by pain, severe redness, and blistering. The blisters appear in small clusters and hold fluid. You may also feel nauseous and dehydrated.
Third-degree sunburn Third-degree sunburn will require medical attention. The skin may turn purplish in colour and large blisters will form. You may experience a mild fever, chills, and headaches. It takes significantly longer to heal and may leave scarring.
Fourth-degree burn This type of sunburn is incredibly serious and potentially life-threatening. It can affect all layers of the skin as well as the underlying fat and muscle. It will cause your skin to discolour, turning white, grey, or even black. There is likely to be no sensation in the burn area as the nerves will have been destroyed and it can cause permanent damage.

 

How do I treat sunburn peeling?

Dry and peeling skin is a common consequence of sunburn and a normal part of the healing process. It is important not to pick the peeling skin or use anything too abrasive as this can cause infection.

Instead, you should apply an anti-inflammatory cream or gel to the site. Aloe vera or cortisone cream works well as they also prevent itching. Keep baths and showers cool and apply a moisturiser to the skin after bathing.

How do I treat sunburn blisters?

If you have sustained a more severe sunburn, you may experience clusters of blisters on your skin.

It is fine to use moisturiser, aloe vera or calamine lotion on the affected skin. These will help to hydrate the skin, take some of the heat from the burn and help the blisters heal faster.

Don't pick the blisters as this can lead to infection or scarring. If any do happen to pop, gently clean the area with water and mild soap before patting dry with a clean towel. You can follow this by applying an antibiotic cream and covering the area with a non-stick gauze or bandage. Whilst the blisters are healing, avoid going out in the sun and keep clothing loose to avoid it from sticking to any fluid which may be leaking. Also, make sure you keep your fluid intake high as this will speed up healing.

How can I prevent sunburn?

The best way to avoid getting sunburnt is to limit how long you spend in direct sunlight and take steps to protect your skin. Ways to prevent sunburn include:

  • Wearing SPF face protection
  • Using sun cream on any exposed areas like the hands, feet, neck and lips
  • Covering your body with clothing made from a tightly woven material
  • Wearing a wide-brimmed hat
  • Protecting your eyes by wearing sunglasses
  • Sitting in shaded areas when outside
  • Avoiding going outside during the hottest part of the day

In summary, mild sunburn can usually be treated at home using over the counter treatments and will normally heal within a week. The best way to prevent sunburn is to be conscious of the time you spend outside and wear suitable protection.

If you want to make sure you are always prepared, then why not read our guide on how to choose the best sunscreen? You can also find out more about SPF ratings and how to understand different ingredients. And don’t forget after sun - take a look at our online range today.

References

www.nhs.uk/conditions/sunburn
www.healthline.com/health/sun-poisoning