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Home :: Skin Disorders

Sunburn - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment


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Sunburn results from too much sun or sun-equivalent exposure. Most sunburns cause mild pain and redness but affect only the outer layer of skin ( first-degree burns ). Ultraviolet rays can also cause invisible damage to the skin. Excessive and/or multiple sunburns cause premature aging of the skin and lead to skin cancer. Almost everyone has been sunburned or will become sunburned at some time in their life. It is a burn to the skin produced by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, commonly from the sun 's rays. Anyone who visits a beach, goes fishing, works in the yard, or simply is out in the sun can get sunburn. Improper tanning bed use is also a source of sunburn. When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it produces a pigment called melanin to help protect itself against ultraviolet light. This is what makes your skin go darker and is what you see as a suntan. Signs and symptoms of sunburn usually appear within a few hours of exposure, bringing pain, redness, swelling and occasional blistering.

Sunburn doesn't just happen in hot weather - reflection of light off the snow can also cause sunburn. It is visible radiation damage to the skin. UV rays are a type of radiation energy, which are given out by the sun and sun beds/tanning lamps. Sunburn early in life increases one's risk of developing skin cancers later in life such as melanoma , basal cell carcinoma , and squamous cell carcinoma. It can easily be prevented through the use of sunscreen, clothing (and hats), and by limiting solar exposure, especially during the middle of the day. Many people also think that a suntan makes a person look young and healthy. The precise biochemical pathways that lead to the sunburn reaction are not well understood but appear to involve multiple inflammatory mediators, including histamine, prostaglandins, and cytokines. However, sunlight can be harmful to the skin, causing immediate problems as well as problems that may develop years later. Children who have fair skin, moles, or freckles, or who have a family history of skin cancer, are more likely to develop skin cancer in later years. Sunburn can be prevented by limitation of sun exposure and use of sunscreen products.

Causes of Sunburn

The comman causes of Sunburn include the following:

  • UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn, suntan and skin damage.
  • Sunburn results when the amount of exposure to the sun or other ultraviolet light source exceeds the ability of the body's protective pigment, melanin , to protect the skin.
  • Travel to the southern United States, regions close to the equator, and places at high altitudes all offer the unwary visitor an opportunity to be injured by sunburn.
  • Some medications (such as the antibiotic doxycycline ) can make you more susceptible to sunburn.
  • Certain light-skinned and fair-haired people are at greater risk of sunburn injury.
  • Sunburn occurs because the body is unable to make enough melanin (protective pigment in the skin) to protect the skin.

Symptoms of Sunburn

Some sign and symptoms related to Sunburn are as follows:

  • Skin peeling on sunburned areas several days after the sunburn.
  • Dry, itching, and peeling skin days after the burn.
  • Weakness.
  • Chills.
  • Blisters that develop hours to days later.
  • At the same time there may also be symptoms of heatstroke, such as dizziness, headaches.
  • Severe reactions (sometimes called "sun poisoning"), including fever , chills, nausea , or rash.
  • Swelling of the skin.
  • Nausea or vomiting or both.
  • Blistering - May range from a very fine blister that is only found when you begin to "peel" to very large water-filled blisters with red, tender, raw skin underneath.

Treatment of Sunburn

Here is list of the methods for treating Sunburn:

  • Over the counter medications, like ibuprofen, may help to relieve pain from sunburn. (Aspirin should be avoided in children who are running a fever.)
  • If blisters are present, dry bandages may help prevent infection.
  • To alleviate pain and heat (skin is warm to the touch) caused by the sunburn, take a cool (not cold) bath, or gently apply cool, wet compresses to the skin.
  • In most cases, prehospital care involves providing simple first aid to treat patient symptoms.
  • If your case is mild and not life threatening, the doctor may simply suggest plenty of fluids, aspirin, or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs).
  • In rare cases, patients may require admission to a burn unit for aggressive skin care, intravenous fluids, and electrolyte management. Shock can occur.
  • You may also use cold compresses with Burow solution.