Sun Exposure - Sunburn

Sunburn is an often painful sign of skin damage from spending too much time outdoors without wearing a protective sunscreen. Years of overexposure to the sun lead to premature wrinkling, aging of the skin, age spots, and an increased risk of skin cancer. In addition to the skin, eyes can get burned from sun exposure. Sunburned eyes become red, dry, and painful, and feel gritty. Chronic exposure of eyes to sunlight may cause pterygium (tissue growth that leads to blindness), cataracts, and perhaps macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.

Symptoms

Unlike a thermal burn, sunburn is not immediately apparent. Symptoms usually start about 4 hours after sun exposure, worsen in 24-36 hours, and resolve in 3-5 days.

Symptoms may include:

  • Red, warm, and tender skin
  • Swollen skin
  • Blistering
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

The pain from sunburn is worse 6-48 hours after sun exposure. Skin peeling usually begins 3-8 days after exposure.

Unlike a thermal burn, sunburn is not immediately apparent. Symptoms usually start about 4 hours after sun exposure, worsen in 24-36 hours, and resolve in 3-5 days.

Symptoms may include:

  • Red, warm, and tender skin
  • Swollen skin
  • Blistering
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

The pain from sunburn is worse 6-48 hours after sun exposure. Skin peeling usually begins 3-8 days after exposure.

First Aid

There is no quick cure for minor sunburn:

  • Symptoms can be treated with aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to relieve pain and headache and reduce fever.
  • Drinking plenty of water helps to replace fluid losses.
  • Cool baths or the gentle application of cool wet cloths on the burned area may also provide some comfort.
  • Workers with sunburns should avoid further exposure until the burn has resolved.
  • Additional symptomatic relief may be achieved through the application of a topical moisturizing cream, aloe, or 1% hydrocortisone cream.
  • A low-dose (0.5%-1%) hydrocortisone cream, which is sold over the counter, may be helpful in reducing the burning sensation and swelling and speeding up healing.

If blistering occurs:

  • Lightly bandage or cover the area with gauze to prevent infection.
  • The blisters should not be broken, as this will slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection.
  • When the blisters break and the skin peels, dried fragments may be removed and an antiseptic ointment or hydrocortisone cream may be applied.
  • Seek medical attention if any of the following occur:
    • Severe sunburns covering more than 15% of the body
    • Dehydration
    • High fever (>101°F)
    • Extreme pain that persists for longer than 48 hours

There is no quick cure for minor sunburn:

  • Symptoms can be treated with aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to relieve pain and headache and reduce fever.
  • Drinking plenty of water helps to replace fluid losses.
  • Cool baths or the gentle application of cool wet cloths on the burned area may also provide some comfort.
  • Workers with sunburns should avoid further exposure until the burn has resolved.
  • Additional symptomatic relief may be achieved through the application of a topical moisturizing cream, aloe, or 1% hydrocortisone cream.
  • A low-dose (0.5%-1%) hydrocortisone cream, which is sold over the counter, may be helpful in reducing the burning sensation and swelling and speeding up healing.

If blistering occurs:

  • Lightly bandage or cover the area with gauze to prevent infection.
  • The blisters should not be broken, as this will slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection.
  • When the blisters break and the skin peels, dried fragments may be removed and an antiseptic ointment or hydrocortisone cream may be applied.
  • Seek medical attention if any of the following occur:
    • Severe sunburns covering more than 15% of the body
    • Dehydration
    • High fever (>101°F)
    • Extreme pain that persists for longer than 48 hours

Page last reviewed: May 31, 2018
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