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How To Treat a Sunburn

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on August 11, 2022. In Beach

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We’ve all been there. You’re on the beach, you’ve got your umbrella set up, maybe some beach chairs and a cooler. People are out in the water in kayaks, they’re barbecuing and playing volleyball and the next thing you know the whole afternoon has passed. You move the wrong way and wince in pain as you realize your shoulders and arms are red and inflamed. You got too much sun and have a sunburn.

No one sets out to get burned but they sure do happen. Now you don’t want to touch anything and you have to endure a few days of serious discomfort and pain. If it’s really bad you’ll end up with big, ugly blisters that can pop and leak fluid everywhere. And at the back of your mind you know this is not good for your skin’s health. Skin cancer is real and it’s terrifying.

How to Tell You Have a Sunburn

Not every sunburn shows up as flaming red and cracked skin. There are degrees of burns, some of which are more tolerable than others. But no sunburn is good for you and an untreated burn can get worse and become more painful. Be on the lookout for symptoms like:

  • A deepening red color to the skin. It can take several hours for a burn to really present itself.
  • Swelling and inflammation
  • Soreness to the touch. If anything causes pain, especially just brushing against things or sudden contact, you probably have a burn
  • Heat. A sunburn will become hot to the touch due to the inflammation and your body trying to repair itself.
  • In severe cases your skin may crack or blister releasing a clear to yellowish fluid that will become sticky as it dries.

Sunburns can be very dangerous if they are too severe. They may accompany other conditions like dehydration and heat stroke. If you or the person burned is showing signs of being confused, if there is a fever present, vomiting and dehydration, you should seek medical help right away.

How to Treat Sunburned Skin

  • If you have a sunburn you’ll want to get to treating it right away to reduce those bad symptoms. Because the pain from a sunburn is caused by swelling and inflammation one of the best things you can use right away is an anti-inflammatory or pain reliever. Advil and other ibuprofen-based products can relieve pain and also decrease inflammation. Tylenol and other acetaminophen-based pain relievers can decrease the pain but not the swelling. Keep in mind that you should follow the directions when using these medications and make sure they’re safe for you to take if you’re already on other medications to prevent any interactions. Use them as directed.
  • Non-medication treatments will also help a lot with a sunburn. A cool bath or shower with the spray on a gentle setting can really relieve heat and help reduce the swelling you’re feeling. Putting about 4 or 5 tablespoons of baking soda in the tub may help as well.  When you’re done, don’t rub yourself with the towel, just pat your skin dry. Apply some lotion immediately afterwards and that will help keep your skin from dehydrating and feeling worse.
  • If you have any blisters, resist the urge to pop them. This is hard to do for some people, but popping a blister can increase your risk for infection which you definitely don’t want. If a blister does pop, then you shouldn’t leave it as is. Use a sterile pair of scissors cleaned with alcohol to cut off the loose skin and expose the whole area of the blister underneath. You want to remove any pockets where fluid and anything else can build up and become infected. Clean it gently and apply antibiotic ointment.
  • Drink lots of water. Even without blisters, a sunburn is drawing water to the site of the burn in your skin and that has to come from somewhere. Drink more than usual to stay hydrated and help heal the burn faster.
  • Make sure you’re taking steps to prevent additional damage. If you have to go outside again when you’re burned, keep your skin covered as best you can. Wear long sleeves, keep a hat on, and make sure you’re applying a strong sunscreen. Staying out of the sun as much as possible is the best thing you can do while you heal. Don’t forget your eyes, either. Make sure you have some polarized sunglasses to prevent damage to your eyes from UVA and UVB rays.
  • Get some rest. Your body heals itself best when you’re taking it easy and giving it time to do so. The more active you are, the more your body needs to burn energy to manage whatever else you’re doing. Resting gives your body time to focus on healing, which will help you get past the pain and discomfort that much sooner. Obviously it’s not always easy to sleep with a sunburn, but do your best to find a way to take it easy.

Will Aloe Vera Irritate Sunburned Skin?

Aloe vera gel and lotions made from it are actually a great way to help soothe sunburned skin. A good trick you can try is to keep the bottle or tube in the fridge first so that it’s extra cold when you apply it. This will help cool the skin more and the lotion itself ensures you stay moisturized during the healing process. Something like calamine lotion may also help.

You want to avoid any kind of product that contains alcohol when it comes to treating a sunburn. Alcohol will dry your skin making it feel worse and it will also sting something fierce. Save yourself some unnecessary pain and don’t use anything with alcohol on it.

Likewise, avoid numbing sprays and creams. The urge to use something that includes ingredients like benzocaine or lidocaine may be there since these are supposed to numb pain. Typically you’ll find these ingredients in things like tooth pain ointments and topical pain relievers but they are not ideal for sunburns. They can cause more irritation and there’s also a potential for an allergic reaction.

If your burn is moderately bad, hydrocortisone cream may be a good option. This is non-prescription so you can buy it over the counter in a concentration of 1%. Apply it several times a day to the burn to help relieve swelling and irritation. It’s also good for itching which is a side effect some people experience especially as a burn heals.

How Long Does it Take to Heal a Sunburn?

Obviously this depends on a number of factors. The severity of the burn is a big factor here. A mild burn can be gone is as little as three days in some cases, or less than a week in others. A more severe burn with blisters can take over a week or even several weeks.

Your skin type will have some effect on how long it takes to heal. People with very pale skin tend to suffer worse burns. As a result, the healing process may take longer. In addition, there are outside factors. If you don’t follow any of the tips I’ve mentioned, for instance, your healing could take longer. A lack of rest and hydration will slow the healing process.

Everyone heals differently and that’s something you need to keep in mind as well. You probably have some idea how you typically manage with sunburns if you have had one before and if not then we can say, in general, expect a mild sunburn to take 3 days to a week to go away. A more severe burn can take a week to three weeks to fully heal.

Remember that if you have a severe burn you should not try to deal with it at home. A large number of blisters, cracked skin, especially if it bleeds, and wounds that cause pain you can’t handle need to be seen by a doctor. Don’t put it off because it’s “just” a sunburn.

Bad sunburns, especially those with blisters and cracked skin, can lead to secondary infections and those can be dangerous. Infected blisters and wounds can lead to sepsis and that could be deadly.

What Is the Risk of Skin Cancer From a Sunburn?

Sun exposure has a cumulative effect and that’s where the danger lies. UVA and UVB rays are types of radiation produced by the sun. They can be absorbed into your skin and cause serious health issues.

UVA rays are able to penetrate more deeply into your skin and they also contribute to premature aging and more profound aging of your skin. That means, over time, exposure to UVA rays will lead to more wrinkles, dry-skin, discolored skin and so on. This is in addition to the risk of cancer.

UVB rays do not penetrate as deep as UVA but they pose an even more serious risk. This type of radiation can lead to cellular mutations and these are where various skin cancers start. Your body will fight off many of these potential mutations and kill off the damaged skin cells caused by the burn, but some will endure and lead to the mutations which is what skin cancer actually is.

The statistics on how sunburns affect skin cancer are very damning. They say just five sunburns in your entire childhood will double your risk of skin cancer. And, as it stands, one in five people in America are already going to get skin cancer by age 70. In fact, 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every single day in America. Worse, every hour, two people die from it.

While five “normal” sunburns can double your chances, a single sunburn that is so bad it leads to blisters will put you in the same boat. One burn is all it takes to double your risk.

As you can see, it’s of great importance to minimize your risk of sunburn whenever possible. And if you do get a sunburn, remember to use the tips I’ve suggested to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Is There a Way to Heal a Sunburn Fast?

Unfortunately there is no secret way to help you get over a sunburn faster than normal. You’ll probably find lots of home remedies online and some may work better than others. Some may make things worse, however, so keep that in mind. If the burn is not so bad that it doesn’t require medical attention, your best options are sleep and hydration plus pain relievers, moisturizers and cool baths to help treat sunburn symptoms.

Prevention is the Best Idea

There is no such thing as a good sunburn. As we saw in those cancer stats, literally every sunburn you get puts you at risk. For that reason, you need to do your best to avoid them at all costs. Of course, if you’re reading this it’s probably too late this time. But for next time, remember to use sunscreen each and every time you’re going to be out in the sun. If you plan to be swimming, make it a reef safe sunscreen.

Regular use of sunscreen that is at least SPF 15 can reduce your risk of skin cancer significantly, up to 40% to 50% less risk for various types. You can use a traditional cream or lotion, or even a powder sunscreen.

You should be using a stronger sunscreen, something around 30+ or even 50+. Make sure you have a broad spectrum sunscreen that prevents both kinds of UV rays. And apply it according to the directions. That means applying it up to 30 minutes before sun exposure if it’s a chemical sunscreen. That also means reapplying regularly, every 2 to 4 hours as the directions dictate. Maybe more often if you are sweating heavily or swimming.

If you want to get some color, you can use a tanning lotion with sunscreen to ensure you still avoid that burn.

Regular use of sunscreen ensures you won’t have to go through this again and you don’t need me to tell you that you definitely don’t want another sunburn.

The Bottom Line

While there’s no instant cure for a sunburn, there are some ways you can alleviate the symptoms and help the healing process. Remember to take it easy and keep yourself hydrated, which is probably the biggest thing people forget. Keep yourself protected from the sun as you heal and don’t forget to use sunscreen the next time you’re heading out. As always, keep safe and have fun.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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