Sunburn is a visible reaction of the skin's exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation (invisible rays that are part of sunlight), or UV light sources, such as tanning salons. The signs of a sunburn may not appear for a few hours. It is typically at its worst at 24 to 36 hours after sun exposure and resolves in 3 to 5 days. Ultraviolet rays can also initially cause invisible damage to the skin. Excessive and/or multiple sunburns cause premature aging of the skin and lead to skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., and exposure to the sun is the leading cause of skin cancer.
The following are the most common symptoms of a sunburn. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
Swelling of the skin
Weakness, confusion, or faintness
Dry, itching, and peeling skin days after the burn
Severe sunburns may cause a person to become dehydrated and even go into shock. This is characterized by fainting, low blood pressure, and profound weakness. Immediate medical attention is necessary if this happens. By the time redness and pain appear, the damage has been done. Pain is usually at its worst 6 to 48 hours after the burn. While the symptoms of a sunburn may be temporary, the skin damage is permanent. The symptoms of a sunburn may resemble other skin conditions. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
Sunburns usually heal themselves in a couple of weeks. However, depending on the severity and location of the sunburn, the following may be recommended. Always talk with your healthcare provider for more information.
To alleviate pain and heat (skin is warm to the touch) caused by the sunburn, take a cool (not cold) bath, or gently apply cool, wet compresses to the skin.
Take a pain reliever, such as aspirin (children and teenagers should never be given aspirin because of the danger of Reye syndrome), acetaminophen, or ibuprofen.
To rehydrate (add moisture to) the skin and help reduce swelling, apply topical moisturizing cream, aloe, or 1% hydrocortisone cream.
Stay in the shade until the sunburn is healed. Additional sun exposure will only increase the severity and pain of the sunburn.
If the sunburn is severe and blisters form, talk with your healthcare provider right away.
Here are tips to prevent sunburns:
Avoid excessive exposure to the sun during the peak hours of sunlight, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Wear sun protective clothing such as long sleeves and hats
Avoid tanning salons
The University of Chicago Medicine
5841 S. Maryland Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637 | 773-702-1000
Appointments: Call UCM Connect at 1-888-824-0200