Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at March 21, 2016

Sunburn is caused by prolonged exposure to UVA and UVB rays from sunlight and sunlamps. Though it is highly preventable, methods of treatment include staying out of the sun and relieving heat, pain, and itching caused by sunburn.


Definition & Facts

A sunburn occurs when the skin receives too much exposure from UVA or UVB rays. UVC rays do not permeate the skin. Sunburns can be caused by the sun, but people also become burned with too much exposure to sunlamps. A sunburn is marked by reddened and painful skin that may not result immediately. Sunburned skin feels hot when it is touched.

Symptoms can develop within a few hours of sun exposure, and other more severe symptoms may occur as well. People can receive second-degree burns from being sunburned in the form of blisters, but they may also become severely ill and require hospitalization.

Symptoms & Complaints

When the skin receives too much UVA and UVB exposure, marked redness and pinkness may not be immediately evident if the person is still outdoors. The skin will start to experience pain and tightness even if immediate change in color cannot be seen. It may be difficult to see skin redness while in the sun. It is usually evident once a person comes indoors.

The sun-damaged skin may also appear increasingly dry. Sunburns tend to dehydrate the body. The skin may increase in pinkness or redness within the next few hours following initial damage. Pain and heat within the skin may become more intense as well.

Depending upon the severity of the burn, people may experience blisters, headaches, fever, fatigue, chills, and swelling. At times, people have been known to vomit. Sunstroke can occur concurrently, so it’s important to seek medical treatment in the case of fever.

Once the skin begins to heal, itching may occur. Peeling quickly follows itching whereby the top layer of skin gradually peels off to reveal less sun-damaged skin. It is important to note that the eyes can also be burned by UVA and UVB-exposure. Eyes will become dry and have a gritty feel to them when they’re sunburned. This occurs within a couple hours of prolonged sun exposure.


A suntan is evidence of the body trying to protect itself from being burned. Melanin protects the skin from sunburn. Everyone has melanin in their skin; however, some people have more melanin in their skin than others. Naturally darker-skinned people are able to produce more melanin than lighter-skinned people.

UVA and UVB rays are able to permeate through several layers of skin, which causes damage at some point. This depends on how much melanin is present in the skin at any given point. The skin’s reaction to UVA and UVB rays is to speed up melanin production. Lighter-skinned people tend to burn more easily and at a quicker rate than darker-skinned people, which is why sunscreens come in varying amounts of SPF (sun protection factor).

People can become sunburned on cloudy or hazy days. As much as 80 percent of the sun’s rays can permeate the clouds. In addition, water and snow reflect UVA and UVB rays. People can become sunburned while they’re spending time by the pool, on a boat or by another body of water even if they have overhead covering. People at higher altitudes are more prone to sunburns. Some oral prescriptions and lotions increase photosensitizing, which causes people to sunburn quicker.

Diagnosis & Tests

A sunburn can be immediately noticed by a doctor; however, a doctor may perform a physical examination in addition to asking about symptoms, sunburn history and UV exposure. A patient’s blood pressure and temperature will be taken. If either are high, the patient may be diagnosed with sunstroke, or heat stroke, as well.

The doctor may perform a phototest, which exposes small areas of the skin to both UVA and UVB rays in an effort to reproduce the results of the sunburn. If the skin burns relatively easily, the patient is considered to be photosensitive. Photosensitivity means that a person is more sensitive to UVA and UVB rays than most.

Treatment & Therapy

One should stay out of the sun until the skin is healed. There isn’t a way to immediately heal sunburned skin. People may wish to put gels or lotions on their skin immediately following a sunburn, but this is not advisable. Certain gels and lotions that contain petroleum, lidocaine and benzocaine may lock in heat into the skin, which causes further damage and pain.

Using a damp towel on the skin will lift heat out of the skin. Turning the towel over every so often helps to speed up the cooling time. Once the heat has been lifted out of the skin, it is okay to apply lotions and gels. Lidocaine may be used at this point to lessen the pain. Aloe vera and soy are helpful in soothing sunburned and dry skin.

Pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or naproxen are helpful and available over the counter. A prescription may become necessary if the pain is too intense. Corticosteroids and hydrocortisone are helpful in relieving pain and itch caused by sunburn. Drinking extra water is important in warding off dehydration. Avoiding popping blisters will prevent infection.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

It is important to avoid future sunburns as every burn makes a person more susceptible to skin cancer. Staying out of the sun for extended periods of time, and avoiding sun exposure between 10 am and 4 pm when the sun’s rays are at their strongest can help prevent sunburn. Using tightly woven clothing to cover arms and legs can also help. Some clothing protects against UVA and UVB rays.

Additional preventative measures include wearing wide-brimmed hats to block the sun’s rays and using sunscreen or sunblock. Sunscreen allows some of the rays to permeate the skin. Sunblock completely blocks the rays from the skin. If using sunscreen, using one with an SPF of 30 or higher will help, especially if one applies it every two hours or more often while spending time in water. Wearing sunglasses with UV-protection ratings can also protect the eyes.

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