How Long Does a Sunburn Last?
Ian Fortey Updated on October 11, 2022. In Beachby
The summer sun tempts a lot of us to get out and soak up some rays but the risk of a sunburn is always high. The average sunburn may take around 5 days to heal. That’s a very rudimentary rule of thumb however and there are several factors we need to take into consideration that can help fine tune the number for you.
Types of Sunburn
We break up sunburns into three different types that mostly cover what you’re experiencing. That’s a mild sunburn, a moderate sunburn and a severe sunburn. No sunburn is a good sunburn, so let’s clear that up right away. Every sunburn you get increases your risk of developing some kind of skin cancer down the road.
The effects of the sun are cumulative and all contribute to premature aging, damaged skin and more. You can’t get out of the sun and reset the clock. Every sunburn you get in your life puts you at risk of developing skin cancer by damaging skin cells. In fact, just five or more sunburns in your whole life can double your risk of developing some kind of skin cancer. Worse, one single sunburn that is severe enough to blister will double your chances. When caught early, there is a very high success rate in treating most forms of skin cancer so even though it sounds scary, the outlook can still be good. Let’s look at some sunburn symptoms .
A mild sunburn can clear up in as little as three days in many cases but may last up to five. What qualifies as a mild sunburn? This usually involves redness of the skin and mild swelling. You’ll feel tenderness but it probably won’t be a sharp pain if there’s accidental contact. Getting clothes on and off may be uncomfortable but not unbearable. There will still be pain if you’re struck suddenly or something abrasive rubs firmly against the burned area.
The symptoms of a mild sunburn may arise as long as six hours after exposure to the sun. Usually you’ll feel the worst of it within 24 hours and then, by the third day, it should be at the very least tolerable and likely not noticeable at all any longer. As the burn heals you may notice dryness of the skin and some flaking or mild peeling.
A moderate sunburn will be more noticeable and can last for about 5 days but may completely heal in as long as 7 days. You may not notice all the symptoms until a full 24 hours has passed. There will be increased redness and swelling. The skin will be hot to the touch and any contact that isn’t very gentle will often be very uncomfortable. Changing clothing can cause pain with a moderate sunburn and if anything makes sudden contact with the burned skin it can be very painful.
When a moderate burn heals you’ll notice more prominent peeling skin as it fades away.
A severe burn may take a week to fully heal up to two weeks in very bad situations. There are times when a severe burn is so bad that medical attention may be your best option for dealing with it. This would be the case if you have severe blistering and open sores as a result of the burn. These are the sorts of things that can happen if you fall asleep in the sun and can be extremely painful.
Severe burns may have symptoms you notice right away upon realizing what happens and they will worsen over the following 24 hours. Blisters, sometimes extremely large ones, can form on any burned surface. Often these fill with a yellowish fluid that will be sticky if the blister is punctured. DO NOT POP THE BLISTERS. If you can avoid it, let the blisters stay intact. Honestly, if you’re blistered badly, go see a doctor, they will offer the best advice. But if you choose to deal with it on your own, try to leave the blisters intact and let them heal on their own. A popped blister will not only leak fluid which can be unpleasant, it also opens the wound up to infection, which is even worse.
Additional symptoms of severe sunburns can include extremely red, sore and swollen skin. You may suffer cracks in addition to burns which may weep fluid or even blood in some cases. Any contact will produce extreme pain and the burns can radiate heat.
Sleeping can be very difficult with extreme burns. The texture of bedding can be very uncomfortable, especially if you move a lot in your sleep. The potential to cause serious friction burns or burst blisters is a risk.
In addition to the symptoms visible on your skin, severe sunburns may also cause heat stroke-related issues. Dehydration, dizziness, fever, nausea, headaches and chills can all come along with very bad sunburns. As a result you may need to take several days to rest and recover as best you can.
Should I See a Doctor?
If you have a severe sunburn that leads to dehydration, fever, nausea, heat exhaustion or irregular heartbeat, please seek medical attention right away. Likewise, if you have blisters that become infected or the pain gets worse over time instead of getting better, you should also not delay in seeking help from a doctor.
Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer by Skin Type
There was a scale developed all the way back in 1975, called the Fitzpatrick Skin Type chart, to help determine your risk for sunburn and skin cancer based on skin type. In this case, skin type refers to the amount of melanin in your skin and therefore your tendency to burn. The less melanin you have, the more likely you are to burn and to burn severely. The more melanin you have the less likely you are to burn and the quicker your burns tend to heal.
Melanin is the dark pigment that causes skin, hair and even eyes to have darker color. Your body produces melanin naturally in skin cells called melanocytes thanks to uv exposure.
Type 1: This skin type has the least melanin. You may have green or blue eyes, and blonde or red hair. Your skin burns so easily that tanning is very difficult as you go straight to burns. Severe burns happen faster and may take longer to heal as a result.
Type 2: This skin type is also pale and you may still have light colored hair and eyes, but not as severe as type 1. Like type 1 you burn easily but with very minimal sun exposure you may tan.
Type 3: This is what many people would also consider fair or light skin but you may also have brown hair and brown eyes. It’s more than likely that you will burn initially but it may fade to a nice looking tan afterwards.
Type 4: This is a darker skin tone and you may have dark hair and eyes as well. You tan easily but the risk of burning due to overexposure is there as well.
Type 5: This skin tone is what most would consider brown, coffee, olive, or something similar. You can easily tan to a darker shade and it would take some time to develop a burn.
Type 6: Very dark brown skin and dark hair and eyes. It’s almost impossible for you to burn with normal sun exposure and to get any color from tanning may be hard to notice against your natural skin tone.
This is just a general guide and many skin tones may fall in between two categories. People with Type 1 and Type 2 skin are at heightened risk for sunburn and should always be using a very high SPF broad spectrum sunscreen to protect themselves. Likewise, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats are good ideas.
Type 3 and 4 skins are less likely to burn as fast as Types 1 and 2, but it can still happen. Your risk of cancer is lower but still very present, and your burns may last a long time once they set in, but probably not as long as 1 and 2.
Types 5 and 6 have the most natural protection from both sunburns and skin cancer. One thing to remember is that, even though you may not burn, you are still absorbing the sun’s UV rays and are therefore at risk from cancer just like the other types. Skin cancer rates tend to be lower in people with darker skin, and the effects of sunburns are less noticeable and clear up faster.
Ways to Help Treat a Sunburn
What we’ve already covered is how a sunburn will typically heal all on its own. The sun damage is literally a radiation burn. But there are ways you can help speed up the relief when you have a sunburn. Keep in mind you can’t technically cure a sunburn, it’s damage to your tissue and needs time to heal. But you can help relieve some of the symptoms.
Over the counter medications like aspirin or Ibuprofen can offer pain relief by reducing swelling and pain as well. Use them as directed if your pain and swelling are too uncomfortable.
A cool bath or shower or cold compresses can help reduce the uncomfortable burning sensation. Obviously this may depend on how sensitive your skin is since the pressure of a shower may be too much. If using cold compresses, wet a towel and press but don’t wipe on the skin to reduce discomfort.
Keeping hydrated is especially important when healing from a sunburn. Drink plenty of water
There are various sunburn relief lotions you can use to help reduce the pain of a burn. Try something like a soothing aloe vera gel which is very helpful on burns. Avoid anything that contains alcohol which will dry your skin out and burn in open sores, as well as anything with lidocaine or other freezing agents as they could make it worse.
The best treatment for a sunburn is time. Your body needs to heal as there’s nothing that can be done from the outside to speed that process up. However, the healing process works best when you have time to rest. Sleep and make sure you’re eating to keep your energy up. Sunburn pain typically goes away within about 48 hours at most, so that’s the mark you’re trying to get to. Remember, if it doesn’t subside and starts to get worse, you’re going to want to see a doctor.
The Bottom Line
A mild sunburn may last around three to five days. Moderate sunburns may take five to seven days. Severe sunburns can last from one to two weeks. Make sure you always wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every time you go out. When you have a burn, stay out of the sun, wear protective clothing and give your body the time it needs to heal. As always, stay safe and have fun.