Sunburn

A sunburn is an injury to the skin. It is caused by over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. The skin becomes pink or red and painful. Very severe sunburns may cause blistering and fluid draining from the skin. Open blisters may become infected. Watch for signs of infection. These include worsening pain, redness, swelling, or pus draining from the burn.

Sunburn starts to get better after 1 to 2 days. A few days later the skin begins to peel. It may take up to 3 weeks to fully heal. This depends on how severe the burn is.

Home care

The following guidelines will help you care for your sunburn at home:

  • Place an ice pack over the injured area. Do this for 20 minutes every 1 to 2 hours the first day for pain relief. To make an ice pack, put ice cubes in a plastic bag that seals at the top. Wrap the bag in a clean, thin towel or cloth. Never put ice or an ice pack directly on your skin. This can cause damage. You can keep using an ice pack at least 3 to 4 times a day until the pain goes away. Cool baths and showers will also help with pain relief.

  • If you have blisters, don't break them. Open blisters slow the healing process. They also raise your risk of infection. You can cover the open blisters with antibacterial cream or ointment, and a dressing or bandage.

  • Wash the burned area daily with soap and water. Then gently dry it with a clean towel. If a dressing was used, put a clean one back on until any open blisters dry up. If the bandage sticks, soak it off in warm water. You can also use nonstick dressings to help prevent this from happening.

  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid fluid loss (dehydration).

Medicine

  • You can take over-the-counter medicine for pain, unless you were given a different pain medicine to use. Talk with your provider before using these medicines if you have chronic liver or kidney disease, ever had a stomach ulcer or GI bleeding, or are taking blood thinner medicines. Don't give ibuprofen to children younger than 6 months.

  • Over-the-counter first-aid creams and sprays made with lidocaine or benzocaine can also help with pain. However, some people are sensitive to medicines that have these ingredients. If the redness or itching gets worse, stop using these medicines. You can use aloe or a moisturizing cream with aloe, or hydrocortisone cream (sold over the counter) to help with pain and swelling. Use these only over spots that don’t have broken blisters.

  • Antibiotics are usually not given unless there is an infection. If you were prescribed antibiotics, take them until they are finished. It is important to finish the antibiotics even if the burn looks better. This will ensure the infection has cleared.

Prevention

Sun exposure damages the DNA of skin cells. This can lead to premature skin aging and wrinkles. Sun exposure is the main cause of skin cancer. Protect your skin from the sun by following these tips:

  • Limit your exposure to UV light. The sun is strongest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If possible, arrange your sun exposure to be before or after those hours. The sun is more intense at the beach, where light reflects off the sand and water. The sun is also more intense at higher altitudes, especially where there is reflecting snow. You can even get sunburn on a cloudy day, because UV light passes through clouds.

  • Do not use tanning beds.

  • Wear protective clothing and a hat. Clothing is more effective than sunscreen alone in blocking UV light.

  • Stay in the shade or carry an umbrella.

  • Use sunscreen on your skin. Put sunscreen on 15 to 20 minutes before going out in the sun. This gives the sunscreen time to interact with your skin. Reapply sunscreen every 1 to 2 hours. Reapply it sooner if it is washed away by sweat or water. Use a sunscreen rated at SPF 30 or higher.

  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV exposure.

  • Many medicines can increase your sensitivity to the sun. These include heart, nausea, anti-inflammatory, and diabetic medicines. It also includes antibiotics and diuretics. Check medicine fact sheets. Talk with your provider if you have questions about your increased risk of sun sensitivity. Sunscreens may not prevent this. 

Follow-up care

Sunburn usually heals without any problems. Follow up with your provider if your sunburn is not healing with home treatments. Also see your provider if you have signs and symptoms of infection.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Pain that gets worse

  • Increasing redness, or red streaks leading away from an open blister

  • Swelling or pus coming from open blisters

  • Upset stomach (nausea)

  • Fever of 100.4º F (38.0º C) or higher, or as directed

Call 911

Call 911 if you have dizziness, fainting, or weakness.