- Mild and moderate sunburns can last a few days while severe sunburns can take 10-24 days to heal.
- People with fair skin types are more susceptible to sunburns
- Most sunburns can be treated at home with cold compresses, lotions, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Severe blistering and feverish symptoms may require medical attention
Sunburns can be a painful and irritating part of spending time outside. The healing process for a sunburn depends on the severity of the burn. Some people are more susceptible to sunburns and may burn easily. Fortunately, most mild and moderate sunburns can be treated at home.
What Happens During a Sunburn?
Sun exposure, also known as ultraviolet radiation, can burn your skin. Out of the three types of ultraviolet radiation (UVA, UVB, and UVC), UVB rays are most likely to hit the outer layer of skin known as the epidermis. After exposure to UV light, the epidermis thickens and the skin cells produce melanin, a pigment in the skin that protects against UV rays. Some skin types produce less melanin than others and are more likely to burn from overexposure to the sun.
Signs of susceptibility for a sunburn
- Fair skin
- Blue, green, or grey eyes
- Blond, red, or brown hair
*People with darker skin are also vulnerable to sun damage if they do not practice sun safety and avoid prolonged exposure.
Symptoms of sunburn include red, inflamed, tender, and peeling skin. Blisters, nausea, fever, and chills may occur in more severe cases.
How Long Does Sunburn Last?
Indications of a sunburn are noticeable approximately two to five hours after overexposure to the sun. In most cases, symptoms are the worst around 12 to 24 hours following exposure, and healing should begin in a few days.
A first degree sunburn is overexposure that only reaches the epidermis. Classified with mild tenderness and redness, this type of sunburn should heal in a few days. When the skin begins to recover, dead skin cells from UV damage will start to peel away. People with very fair skin often peel sooner and severely while others with darker skin might not notice much peeling at all. A tan could also develop at this point depending on skin type and melanin production.
A second degree sunburn is UV overexposure that reaches below the epidermis to the dermis. Along with the symptoms for the first degree sunburn, the damaged area will blister and swell. The skin might be wet to the touch, and the color of the burn could change from red to dark purple. Other bodily symptoms might include fever, chills, headache, and nausea. A second degree sunburn can take from 10 to 24 days to heal.
How to Treat Sunburn Depending on Which Stage It’s at
Treating sunburn is about treating the symptoms of sunburn. There are stages in sunburn development when the symptoms may change or progress. Proper treatment will depend on the stages and the degree of sunburn.
The burn stage usually begins at around two hours when redness and skin tenderness is first noticeable. In this stage, the skin will be hot and sensitive.
Treatment for the Burn Stage
For all stages of sunburn, drinking water is important. Moisture is required in healing sunburns, so staying hydrated should be one of the first steps of treatment. Try to avoid alcoholic beverages that could further dehydrate you.
Take a cool bath or shower
Taking a cool bath or shower can help soothe the skin and relieve the burning sensation. Because there will likely be some mild pain during this stage, lightly pat your skin dry afterward instead of rubbing it to avoid irritation.
Colloidal oatmeal soak
Due to the anti-inflammatory aspect in oatmeal, using a colloidal oatmeal bath treatment can also soothe the skin while keeping it moisturized.
Apply cold compresses
A cold compress can cool the skin. Take a bag of ice or an icepack and wrap it in a towel to act as a protective barrier between the skin and ice. Apply to the damaged area for 10 to 15 minutes a few times a day.
The pain stage starts at around six hours after overexposure. This stage has the same symptoms of the burn stage with the added symptoms of pain and swelling. In second degree burns, blisters will likely have formed at this point, increasing the severity of pain.
Treatment for the Pain Stage
Over the counter medication
- Ibuprofen or acetaminophen: These can be taken for sunburn pain relief.
- Aspirin: In addition to pain management, aspirin also has anti-inflammatory properties that can relieve swelling caused by sun damage.
- Antihistamines: These will not help heal skin damage, but they can reduce itchiness caused by sunburned skin.
- Anesthetic spray: Sometimes, people use topical anesthetic spray to manage sunburn pain. Caution should be taken with this form of treatment because it can make the skin very sensitive.
- Corticosteroids: Although some dermatologists prescribe these for sunburns, studies suggest there isn’t sufficient evidence that these are an effective treatment in healing sun damage.
Aloe Vera Gel
Applying Aloe Vera gel to the damaged areas can soothe inflammation and pain caused by sunburn.
For severe burns, keep larger blisters loosely covered with a sterile dressing to protect against irritation from clothing and other environmental irritants.
*Any treatment for the burn stage can also be used during this stage.
The peeling stage for a mild or moderate sunburn will begin around two days after sun overexposure. When the skin starts healing, dead skin will begin to peel away.
Treatment for the Peeling Stage
Skin is prone to be flaky and seem dry during this stage. Apply moisturizing lotion regularly to lessen the severity of peeling. Avoid using petroleum jelly or oils as they could actually make the symptoms of sun damage worse. Also try to avoid using any lotions with strong fragrances which could potentially be an irritant on sun damaged skin.
Try not to pick or peel dead skin. Let it fall off naturally if you can. Pulling skin off earlier than it’s ready could cause further irritation and potentially infection. For severe sunburns, do not pop blisters. Try to avoid touching them if possible. As the blisters dry out and begin to heal, they might leave patches of dead skin similar to the peeling sunburn. Do not pick or try to remove these either.
If exfoliants are common in your skin care routine, forgo using them while your skin is still healing. It might be tempting to scrub away at patchy skin, but while it’s peeling, it’s still likely to be sensitive. Exfoliating during this stage could cause unwanted irritation.
When to See a Doctor
You should seek medical attention in the case of:
- Severe blistering (covering a large area)
- High fever, chills, nausea, and headache
- Signs of infection such as pus, swelling, and red streaks around blistered areas
- If you are taking a photosensitive medication that could have an adverse skin reaction to sun damage
*If you develop an infection due to sun damage, your doctor might prescribe oral or topical antibiotics depending on severity.
How to Prevent Sunburn
Here are some steps you can take to prevent future sunburn.
- When you go outside, try to wear sunscreen of at least SPF 30, even if it’s cloudy.
- If you have fair skin, consider a sunscreen with a higher sun protection factor.
- Using a broad spectrum sunscreen will protect against both UVB and UVA rays.
- Wear water resistant sunscreen if you plan on swimming or sweating.
- Apply sunscreen beneath clothing if your outfit is thin and light as the sun’s rays can penetrate this kind of cloth.
- Sun-protective clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor of at least 30 can also help protect against sunburn.
- Wear a hat to protect your scalp, hair line, and areas on your face that are difficult to cover with sunscreen.
- Try not to get too much sun from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the most hazardous.
- Intensity of UV radiation increases at high altitudes, so be sure to practice sun safety in these environments.
- UV rays can reflect off water, snow, and sand. Be mindful of sun exposure especially on the beach, in the ocean, and if you are skiing or walking in the snow.
- Check that the products you use do not make your skin sensitive to UV rays.
- Give yourself shade options if you plan on spending a lot of time in the sun. If you don’t expect to find shade at your destination, bring an umbrella or a wide brimmed hat.
People with fair skin are at the most risk for sun damage. Certain antibiotics, antidepressants, and other prescription medication can also make you sensitive to UV rays. Check with your doctor if you are planning on spending time in the sun and would like to know the possible risks your medications might pose.
Overexposure to UV rays can cause mild to severe sunburns. Most treatments can be done at home, but in severe cases, you may need to seek medical attention. Prevention is one of the best forms of treatment and can save you the discomfort and pain of sunburn.