Sun & Skin News

Summer Vacation Slipups: How to Treat a Sunburn

By Ali Venosa • June 30, 2022

Ah, summer break. It’s time to leave the daily grind behind and (hopefully) take some time to relax, enjoy yourself with friends and escape work or school for a little while. It’s natural for people to flock toward places that offer warm weather and sea breezes, but they may find themselves unprepared for the intense ultraviolet (UV) rays that accompany that dreamy landscape. Sun protection accidents happen, even to those who are usually vigilant about avoiding sun damage. But when you don’t take the proper steps to protect yourself, it’s possible you’ll develop a sunburn: especially if you’re near sand or water, both of which reflect the sun’s rays back at you, intensifying your UV exposure.

If you’re heading to the beach this summer (or even just spending time in your own backyard!), make sure you know how to avoid sunburns in the first place — but also what to do if you do sustain one.

Prevention Is the Best Medicine

Before hitting the beach, everyone should be sure to pack not only sunscreen — The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using broad-spectrum products with an SPF of 30 or higher when spending extended time outdoors — but also a hat, sunglasses and clothing to cover up with. Adequate sun protection is especially important for kids and young adults, since sun damage is cumulative.

“Childhood sunburns significantly increase the risk of skin cancer later in life,” says Linda K. Franks, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in New York. “However, if you’ve already suffered a few sunburns, you can lessen your chances of skin cancer by avoiding future burns on skin cells that are already vulnerable.”

Preventing sunburns altogether is by far the best way to avoid a very annoying and painful skin condition that also increases your skin cancer risk.

Stop Sunburn in its Tracks

But what if you forget to reapply sunscreen, or accidentally leave your hat at home for the day? It happens — but even if you pledge to do better next time, you may already have gotten a sunburn. According to Dr. Franks, identifying a potential sunburn early can help lessen the ultimate damage.

“If you feel that your skin is burning, seek shade immediately,” she says. “The symptoms of redness and stinging are evidence that an inflammatory reaction has been triggered.”

The reaction is caused by direct damage to skin cells and their DNA by harmful ultraviolet rays. Dr. Franks explains that by turning off or lessening the inflammation, you can limit collateral damage to the skin.

“Prompt treatment is necessary,” she says. “Application of an anti-inflammatory steroid cream should be a first line of treatment. Medicines like Advil or Motrin, so-called ‘nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,’ or NSAIDS, will help, but you need to take them within the first few hours after the sunburn.”

In addition, be sure to avoid any further sun exposure, wear loose, breathable clothing and stay well hydrated. Drinking extra liquids is important because burns draw fluids to the skin’s surface. It’s possible to become dehydrated while a burn heals because these fluids are being pulled from other places in the body.

Over the next few days after a sunburn, cool baths and showers may relieve irritation and pain. To avoid drying, don’t stay in the water too long, and be sure to apply a water-based moisturizing lotion to still-damp skin. Avoid petroleum or oil-based moisturizers, as they may trap heat and make the burn worse.

Bringing Burns to the Doctor

Though anti-inflammatory medicines, moisturizing and hydration will gradually take care of most minor burns, sometimes the damage is serious enough to merit a trip to the doctor.

“The severity and depth of inflammation from sunburn can be equivalent to a second or third-degree burn,” Dr. Franks says. “Blistering and deep damage to the lower layers of the skin lead to loss of skin, infection and scarring.”

If you do develop blistering, especially over large areas, you should seek medical treatment from a professional. You should also visit the doctor if you feel woozy, feverish or develop chills after a sunburn.

The most important thing to remember during your recovery from a sunburn, however, is how to prevent another one! Dr. Franks recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher during this extra-sensitive time. Of course, this should be part of a complete sun protection strategy that includes covering up with clothing and seeking the shade, which will help keep skin protected and comfortable during summer vacation or any other time.

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