With incredible weather and highs of up to 25 degrees, this bank holiday weekend saw many of us out and enjoying the sun. But what if you spent a bit too much time outside and got sunburn?
First of all, what is sunburn?
Sunburn is an acute inflammatory reaction which follows over-exposure to ultraviolet radiation. It causes direct damage to DNA resulting in inflammation and death of skin cells. Repeated sunburn can increase your lifetime risk of developing skin cancer in later life and the risk should be taken seriously. Signs and symptoms usually develop 2-6 hours after sun exposure and peak at about 12-24 hours. Your skin may become hot, red, tender and blisters can form. In severe cases, it is possible to develop dehydration, imbalances of the important salts in your blood, and skin infection. In rare cases, it can potentially be fatal.
What can be done to relieve the discomfort associated with sunburn?
There are a number of steps you can follow.
- SEEK SHADE - The very first thing, however, is to get out of the sun and cover up the affected areas and stay in the shade until your sunburn has healed. Loose cotton clothing worn over sunburn allows sunburnt areas to 'breathe'.
- ORAL MEDICATION - You can take over-the-counter pain relief if needed. These can help reduce both pain and inflammation caused by sunburn. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen are ideal (provided you are safe to take this type of drugs) and should be continued for a period of 48 hours. Paracetamol can help with pain but will have very little effect on inflammation.
- COOL THE SKIN - Apply a cool compress e.g., a towel dampened with cool water for 15 minutes, or take a cool bath or shower. Aim to keep the temperature just below luke-warm. Make sure the shower has a gentle flow of water rather than being on full power. If blisters are starting to develop, then a bath is preferable. Do not rub your skin with a towel, but gently pat it dry when you get out.
- MOISTURISER - Moisturise after your bath or shower and use a fragrance-free cream or lotion to soothe the skin. Repeated applications of this are necessary to reduce the appearance of peeling and may need to be continued for some weeks. Aloe vera or soy-containing gels or lotions can be helpful; aloe vera not only has a cooling effect on the skin but also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. Be wary of creams containing ingredients such as petrolatum, benzocaine or lidocaine which may trap heat in the skin or cause local irritation.
- HYDRATION - Stay hydrated as sunburn can encourage fluid loss through the skin. Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and ideally avoid alcohol which may make dehydration worse due to its diuretic effect.
- STEROIDS IF NEEDED - You can use a mild steroid cream e.g., 0.5-1% hydrocortisone for 38 hours to help decrease pain and swelling caused by sunburn and speed up the healing process. This is best avoided in children.
- DON'T TOUCH BLISTERS - Leave blisters alone; try not to pop them as this can lead to infection and scarring. They will usually settle by themselves within a few days.
What if my sunburn is severe?
Severe cases of sunburn require emergency medical treatment. If you develop blisters that affect up to 20% of your body surface area or other symptoms such as fever, nausea, chills, severe pain, headache, fainting or dizziness it is vital you seek medical attention. Severe sunburn can be associated with heat exhaustion or heat stroke which are life-threatening.
In an ideal world, none of these measures should be needed and preventing sunburn should be the focus. Not only does it cause short-term discomfort, but over the long-term will increase your risk of skin cancer and premature skin ageing. Make sure you are using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection with an SPF 30-50. Remember this is only part of healthy sun-seeking behaviour and protective clothing, wearing a hat, sunglasses and protective clothing alongside seeking the shade especially in the hottest part of the day are vital.