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What is sunburn?

Sunburn is a red, painful skin reaction that occurs after too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light is a type of radiation in sunlight. The symptoms of a sunburn most often appear a few hours after sun exposure. They are often worst at 6 to 36 hours after exposure. The symptoms are short-term (temporary) and go away in 3 to 5 days. But sunburn causes lasting (permanent) damage to the skin’s DNA.

What causes sunburn?

Sunburn is a type of radiation burn from UV light. UV light from the sun is strongest during the summer months between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. But even on cloudy days, UV light can pass through clouds and cause sunburn. UV light also comes from special light bulbs that are used in some machines, such as tanning beds.

Who is at risk for sunburn? 

You are more at risk for sunburn if you:

  • Have fair skin

  • Have skin exposed to the sun during the day

  • Don’t wear protective clothing or sunscreen with enough sun protection factor (SPF)

What are the symptoms of sunburn?

Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each person. They can include skin that is:

  • Red

  • Painful

  • Swollen

  • Warm

  • Blistered

  • Dry, itching, and peeling 3 to 8 days after the burn

Severe sunburn needs medical care right away. Symptoms may include those listed above plus:

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Weakness

  • Confusion

  • Feeling dizzy

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

The symptoms of sunburn can look like other health conditions. If you are concerned, see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is sunburn diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and health history. They may also ask about recent sun exposure or tanning bed use. Your provider will give you a physical exam. This will include looking closely at your skin.

How is sunburn treated?

Treatment will depend on your symptoms and how severe the condition is. Treatments include:

  • Taking a cool (not cold) bath

  • Gently applying a cool, wet cloth on the skin

  • Adding moisture to the skin with lotion

  • Applying aloe gel or 1% hydrocortisone cream

  • Taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain

A sunburn will most often heal on its own in 1 to 2 weeks. While you are healing:

  • Stay out of the sun. More sun exposure will make the burn worse.

  • Don’t pop blisters. This can lead to infection.

  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

Talk with your healthcare providers or your pharmacist about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all medicines.

What are possible complications of sunburn? 

UV rays can cause permanent damage to the skin. Sunburn can cause premature aging of the skin, such as wrinkling and sunspots called lentigo. Sun exposure is also the main cause of skin cancer.

Can sunburn be prevented?

A main way to prevent sunburn is to wear sunscreen and protective clothing. Sunscreens are chemicals that block or filter sunlight. Sunscreen comes in lotions, creams, sprays, sticks, and powders. Some have chemicals that absorb and filter the sunlight, such as oxybenzone and avobenzone. Others have chemicals that physically reflect the light, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. No sunscreen blocks 100% of UV light. But they help protect the skin.

When using sunscreen:

  • Wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.

  • Pick broad spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

  • Use a waterproof or water-resistant sunscreen.

  • Apply to all exposed skin, including ears, lips, back of the neck, and tops of the feet.

  • Apply it 30 minutes before going outside.

  • Reapply it every 2 hours, or after swimming, exercising, or sweating.

Other ways to prevent sunburn include:

  • Stay out of the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This is when the sun's UV rays are strongest.

  • Wear a hat with a wide brim.

  • Wear clothing that protects your skin from the sun. Some clothing is rated with UV protection factor (UPF).

  • Don’t use a tanning bed.

  • Look for shade. Shaded areas get less UV radiation.

  • Use sunscreen even in the shade. UV rays are reflected off other surfaces such as sand, snow, cement, and water.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call the healthcare provider right away if you have symptoms of a severe sunburn:

  • Blisters

  • Fever

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Chills

  • Dizziness

  • Confusion

Key points about sunburn

  • Sunburn is a red, painful skin reaction caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light is a type of radiation in sunlight. It also comes from special light bulbs used in tanning beds.

  • Symptoms can include skin that is red, painful, swollen, and warm.

  • Severe sunburn needs medical care right away. Symptoms may include nausea, blisters, and dizziness.

  • Treatments include applying a cool, wet cloth on the skin and using gel, cream, or lotion.

  • To prevent sunburn, wear sunscreen and protective clothing. Reapply sunscreen as directed on the product label. Stay out of the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Dan Brennan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Michael Lehrer MD
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.