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Sunburn: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About sunburn

Sunburn is damage to skin, produced by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, commonly from the sun's rays. The erythema resulting from damage to the skin is known as sunburn.

Sunburn: Incidence, age and sex

Sunburn is very common, although the incidence has decreased in recent years. This decrease is probably due to efforts to educate the public about the hazards of sun exposure.

Signs & symptoms of sunburn: Diagnosis

Usual symptoms include reddish skin that is hot to touch, general fatigue and mild dizziness. The other symptoms are oedema, itching, peeling skin, rash, nausea and fever.

Causes and prevention of sunburn

Sunburn is caused by UV radiation, either from the sun or from artificial sources, such as welding arcs, the lamps used in sunbeds, and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation. UV-B light causes excitation of DNA leading to direct DNA damage. This triggers the body’s defense mechanisms, including DNA repair to revert the damage and increased melanin production to prevent future damage which manifests as a sunburn.

Prevention is by avoiding sun exposure between 10.00 am and 4.00 pm, educating the public about the dangers of sun exposure and advising them regarding the use of sun-protection agents such as sunscreens. Many sunscreens provide broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB radiation. The best protection is achieved by application 15 to 30 minutes before exposure, followed by one reapplication 15 to 30 minutes after exposure begins. When one is exposed to any artificial source of occupational UV, special protective clothing (for example, welding helmets/shields) should be worn. Some common foods may have some protective ability against sunburn if taken for a period before the exposure. Beta-carotene and lycopene, chemicals found in tomatoes and other fruit, have been found to increase the skin's ability to resist the effects of UV light.

Sunburn: Complications

Sun exposure that's intense enough to cause sunburn can also damage the DNA of skin cells. This damage sometimes leads to skin cancer. Ruptured blisters caused by sunburn makes the skin more susceptible to bacterial infection. Sun exposure and repeated sunburns accelerate the aging process of skin, making one appear older than their age. Actinic keratoses, also known as solar keratoses, cause the skin to appear as rough, scaly areas in sun-exposed areas. It is considered pre-cancerous, as many of these may evolve into skin cancer.

Sunburn: Treatment

Once sunburn has occurred, no effective therapy exists. For mild burns, an emollient and oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent may provide relief. For moderate to severe burns, cold, wet compresses may be used to relieve the burning and tenderness. The skin may be rehydrated by applying topical products containing aloe vera and/or vitamin E, which reduce inflammation. Hydrocortisone cream may also help reduce inflammation and itching.