What is sunburns?

Sunburn: Overview

Being out in the sun can be good for you. Sunlight can brighten your mood and help you feel healthier. But getting too much of the ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight or from indoor tanning can harm your skin. It can cause problems right away as well as problems that may develop years later.

A sunburn is skin damage from the sun's ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B (UVA and UVB) rays. Most sunburns cause mild pain and redness but affect only the outer layer of skin (first-degree burn). The red skin might hurt when you touch it. These sunburns are mild. They can usually be treated at home.

Skin that is red and painful and that swells up and blisters may mean that deep skin layers and nerve endings have been damaged (second-degree burn). This type of sunburn is usually more painful and takes longer to heal.

Other problems that can occur along with sunburn include:

  • Heatstroke or other heat-related illnesses from too much sun exposure.
  • Allergic reactions to sun exposure, sunscreen products, or medicines, such as antibiotics, some acne medicines, and some diabetes medicines.
  • Vision problems, such as burning pain, decreased vision, or partial or complete vision loss.

Long-term problems include:

  • An increased chance of having skin cancer.
  • Having more cold sores.
  • More risk of problems related to a health condition, such as lupus.
  • Cataracts from not protecting your eyes from direct or indirect sunlight over many years. Cataracts are one of the leading causes of blindness.
  • Skin changes, such as premature wrinkling or brown spots.

Your skin type affects how easily you get sunburned. People with white or freckled skin, blond or red hair, and blue eyes usually sunburn easily.

People with darker skin don't sunburn as easily. But they can still get skin cancer. So it's important to use sun protection, no matter what your skin color is.

Your age also affects how your skin reacts to the sun. Children's skin is more sensitive to sunlight.

You may get a more severe sunburn depending on:

  • The time of day. You are more likely to get a sunburn between 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon, when the sun's rays are the strongest. You might think the chance of getting a sunburn on cloudy days is less, but the sun's damaging UV light can pass through clouds.
  • Whether you are near reflective surfaces, such as water, white sand, concrete, snow, or ice. All of these reflect the sun's rays and can increase your risk of getting a sunburn.
  • The season of the year. The position of the sun on summer days can cause a more severe sunburn.
  • Altitude. It's easy to get sunburned at higher altitudes. That's because there's less of the earth's atmosphere to block the sunlight. UV exposure increases in elevation.
  • How close you are to the equator (latitude). The closer you are to the equator, the more direct sunlight passes through the atmosphere. For example, the southern United States gets more sunlight than the northern United States.
  • The UV index of the day, which shows the risk of getting a sunburn that day.

Preventive measures and home treatment are usually all that's needed to prevent or treat a sunburn.

  • Protect your skin from the sun.
  • Don't stay in the sun too long.
  • Use sunscreen, and wear clothing that covers your skin.

If you have any health risks such as having diabetes or cancer, or if you take medicines that may increase the seriousness of sun exposure, you should avoid being in the sun from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon.

What are the symptoms of sunburn?

Sunburns usually cause red, painful skin. The skin may or may not have blisters. If blisters are present, the pain is often worse. You or your child may get a mild fever, headache, or dehydration (the body loses too much fluid).

How is sunburn treated?

Most mild sunburns can be treated at home. But severe sunburns–those causing large, deep blisters, severe pain, a fever, or vomiting–should be seen by a doctor. The doctor may put bandages on the skin. Or the doctor may recommend medicine or a topical treatment. Treatment for dehydration may also be needed.

How is sunburn diagnosed?

Sunburns usually cause red, painful skin. The skin may or may not have blisters. If blisters are present, the pain is often worse. The doctor may ask about sun exposure, use of indoor tanning, or your symptoms.

How can you care for sunburn?

Cool cloths, some lotions, and aloe vera may soothe sunburned areas. Try an anti-inflammatory medicine for pain, swelling, and fever. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Blisters often heal on their own without problems. Don't try to break most blisters.

What skin type increases your risk for sunburn?

Skin types and sunburn
​ ​ ​

Type

Description

Sensitivity

I

White or freckled skin

Extremely sensitive: You sunburn very easily and are not likely to tan.

II

White skin

Very sensitive: You usually sunburn easily and tan a little.

III

White to olive skin

Sensitive: You sunburn sometimes and tan slowly.

IV

Light brown skin

Moderately sensitive: You sunburn a little and usually tan well.

V

Brown skin

Minimally sensitive: You rarely sunburn, and you tan well.

VI

Dark brown to black skin

Not sensitive: You almost never sunburn, and you tan deeply.

What is sunburn?

A sunburn is skin damage from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. Most sunburns cause mild pain and redness but affect only the outer layer of skin. These are usually treated at home. Sunburns that have painful, red blisters may mean that deep skin layers are damaged. These hurt more and take longer to heal.

Sunburn in children: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has signs of needing more fluids. These signs include sunken eyes with few tears, a dry mouth with little or no spit, and little or no urine for 6 hours.
  • Your child has signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child does not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.