Treating a Sunburn

Published by Chris Harvey October 20, 2005

Chris Ott
Copyright 200, RPK&A, Inc

I went to Costa Rica for high-minded things: the rainforest, the culture, the language. But I wasn’t completely insensible to the call of the beach. After all, I was only in the country for a couple of weeks, and back on campus it was one of those cold, wet winters that leaves people begging for mercy.

But whether I was out on the sand for longer than I thought–15 or 20 minutes sans sunscreen couldn’t be so bad, could it?–or whether it was the angle of the almost-equatorial sun, I misjudged something. The waitress in the tiny restaurant where I stopped for an early dinner on the way home from the beach looked worried, and by the time I got back to my room at the pensiĆ³n, I could see why. I had turned hot pink. My skin burned so bad it gave me weird, feverish chills. When the peeling started about a week later, my skin was sloughing off in such big flakes it looked like I had feathers. The best way to deal with a sunburn is, duh, not to get one in the first place. But if you make a mistake, or end up stuck in the sun longer than expected, there are some things you can do:

Cool it. A cool shower or bath, or the application of towels soaked in cool water, can minimize damage to sunburned skin and make you more comfortable. So can some over-the-counter lotions and anesthetic sprays for sunburns. Ordinary over-the-counter medicines that reduce pain and inflammation, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can help, too.

Remember that cool can be better than cold. Except for small burns, putting ice on a burn can be harsh and uncomfortable.

Protect the burn from more damage. Sun protection factor (SPF) 15 sunscreen–or, better yet, clothes–keeps the sun from wreaking more havoc on skin that has already been burned.

Most sunburns are first-degree burns: damage to the top layer of skin. These burns are painful but usually don’t require medical attention. For a second-degree burn, however–a burn that blisters–the damage is deeper. You can still treat a small second-degree burn yourself by cooling and protecting it, but check with a health care provider about a blistering sunburn to a large area of your body.

If you have blisters, don’t break them open. Sometimes they open up by themselves, but it’s a bad idea to open them up before their time because they can get infected. And if you’ve got blisters on an area that’s likely to get rubbed and irritated a lot by your clothes, you might also want to cover the blisters with a padded bandage.

A painful sunburn is bad enough, of course, but there are other complications too: premature aging of the skin, and an increased risk of skin cancer. Ultraviolet light can actually damage the DNA in your skin cells and make them go haywire. Some research suggests that severe sunburns, especially in childhood, may play a significant role in the development of skin cancer. There is also some evidence that periodic “bursts” of sun may be worse for developing melanoma–an especially deadly type of skin cancer–than constant exposure to the sun. (This doesn’t, however, mean you shouldn’t wear sunscreen; everyday sun exposure may not raise your risk of getting melanoma beyond a certain point, but it does seem to increase the risk for other kinds of skin cancer).

One final thing you can do to avoid getting caught unprepared is to put sunscreen on every day, at least on your face. “Make it a routine, like brushing your teeth,” is what experts have been saying for years. I thought that was silly and burdensome until I tried it. If you haven’t been a sunscreen user for awhile, forget about the greasy, gross kinds you might have used as a kid, the kind that stings your eyes as soon as you start to sweat. There are a lot of different sunscreens out there now, mixed into products like lotions or moisturizers which you might not mind anyway, and in convenient containers like bottles with pumps. I’ve been using one SPF 15 brand as a kind of aftershave. It takes all of about 15 seconds to put it on, and if you end up spending longer in the sun than you think, at least you’re already wearing some protection.

References American Red Cross. 1993. Community First Aid and Safety. St. Louis: Mosby Lifeline. pp. 162-163.

Brody, Jane. “Focus Is on Diagnosis As Melanoma Rates Soar.” The New York Times. August 6, 1997.

Brody, Jane. “Sunscreens May Not Block Worst Skin Cancer.” The New York Times. July 14, 1998.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. “Skin Cancer and Sunlight.” Accessed July 6, 2000: http://www.ccohs.ca/< Clayman, Charles B., M.D., and Raymond H. Curry, M.D., eds. 1992. The American Medical Association Guide to Your Family's Symptoms. New York: Random House. p. 286.

National Cancer Institute (U.S.). "Skin Cancer" Accessed July 6, 2000: http://cancernet.nci.nih.gov/

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