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What is sunburn?
Sunburn is skin damage from too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. UV light from artificial sources such as tanning beds can also burn your skin. A sunburn is actually a radiation burn to your skin.
Multiple sunburns can lead to premature skin aging and skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S.
You can minimize your risk of sunburn by taking steps to protect your skin. It’s important to pay attention to your sun exposure when you spend any amount of time outdoors.
What are the types of sunburn?
Sunburns are categorized based on the severity of skin damage. The two most common types of sunburn include:
- First-degree sunburn: Damage to your skin’s outer layer. This usually heals on its own in a few days to a week.
- Second-degree sunburn: Damage to the inner layer of your skin (dermis). This may cause blistering. It can take weeks to heal and may need medical treatment.
In very rare cases, people might get a third-degree sunburn. This type of sunburn:
- Severely damages all layers of your skin, including the fat layer beneath the skin.
- May destroy nerve endings.
- Requires emergency treatment.
Taking medication that makes you more sensitive to UV rays rarely leads to a third-degree sunburn. Or it could happen if you fall asleep in the sun for many hours near the equator. But most third-degree burns result from a chemical burn or fire.
How common is sunburn?
Sunburns are very common. The 2015 National Health Interview Survey found that 1 in 3 U.S. adults reported having at least one sunburn in 2015.
Sunburns are even more common in younger people. Between half and three-quarters of children younger than 18 have sunburns each year. More than half of adults aged 18 to 29 reported having one or more sunburns in 2015.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes sunburn?
Sunburn is caused by exposure to two types of ultraviolet rays from the sun: UVA rays and UVB rays. Both types of rays can burn your skin.
Your chance of getting a sunburn increases depending on:
- Amount of time you spend in the sun.
- Certain medications you take, including antibiotics such as doxycycline and bactrim, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), retinoids and heart medications such as diuretics.
- Intensity of UV rays, affected by the time of day, cloud coverage, altitude and closeness to the equator.
- Ozone depletion, depending on where you are in the world.
- Skin type and pigmentation including tanning, although anyone can get a sunburn.
What are the symptoms of sunburn?
Symptoms of sunburn depend on how severe your burn is. Symptoms may include:
First-degree sunburn symptoms
- Skin feels hot or tight.
- Pain or tenderness.
- Peeling skin (after several days).
You may also experience:
Second-degree sunburn symptoms
- Extremely red skin.
- Blistering and swelling over a larger area.
- Wet-looking skin.
- White discoloration within the burn.
You may also experience symptoms of heat illness, including:
- Fast breathing.
- Muscle cramps.
Third-degree sunburn symptoms
- Leathery-looking burn.
- Numb skin.
- White or dull skin color.
- All of the above systemic heat illness symptoms including shock and/or heat stroke.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is a sunburn diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider can evaluate the seriousness of your sunburn. They look at the amount of affected skin, type of sunburn and your symptoms. Then they can recommend the appropriate treatment.
Management and Treatment
How is sunburn treated?
Sunburns often go away on their own within a few days to a week. If you have severe blistering or dehydration, your provider may give you rehydrating fluids.
If you have a third-degree sunburn, you may need a skin graft. A surgeon removes dead skin and transfers healthy skin from elsewhere on your body. These burns take weeks or longer to heal and also have severe complications.
Can I treat sunburn at home?
You can treat most first and second degree sunburns by yourself at home. Steps you can take include:
- Cover your sunburned skin while it heals, especially when outside.
- Drink water to avoid dehydration.
- Leave blisters alone until they heal. And don’t peel skin — let it come off on its own.
- Take a cool bath or shower. Try a bath with oatmeal or baking soda to soothe sore skin.
- Take NSAIDs for pain relief.
- Use topical cooling and hydrating gels, creams and ointments, including hydrocortisone cream, aloe vera gel or petrolatum jelly.
How can I reduce my risk of sunburn?
You can prevent sunburn and lessen your risk of sun damage. Steps you can take include:
- Apply broad spectrum sunscreen every day to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Reapply every 90 minutes when outdoors and more often after swimming and sweating.
- Avoid suntanning and tanning beds.
- Be aware of your sun exposure when taking medications that increase your skin’s sensitivity.
- Limit your sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.
- See a dermatologist for annual skin cancer checks.
- Use sunglasses that filter UV rays.
- Wear protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts, long pants and wide-brimmed hats.
Are there other factors that put me at higher risk?
You’re at a higher risk for sunburn if you:
- Have light skin, freckles, blue eyes, or red or blonde hair.
- Live or spend time at high altitude or closer to the equator.
- Play sports or swim outdoors frequently.
- Spend a lot of time on the water, such as boating, fishing or paddleboarding.
- Tan regularly.
- Work outdoors.
Outlook / Prognosis
Are there long-term effects from sunburn?
Frequent sunburns increase your risk of sun damage. Repeated exposure to harmful UV rays can cause:
- Eye damage which can lead to cataracts.
- Precancerous skin lesions, scaly, rough patches that may become skin cancer.
- Premature skin aging, including discolored age spots, freckles, red veins and wrinkles and sagging.
- Skin cancer, especially on areas most exposed to the sun, such as your arms, back, ears, face and legs. Skin cancers can range from pink scaly spots, to local sores that don’t heal, to multi-colored lesions that can metastasize to internal organs.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
See your provider if you have any concerns about your sunburn or how it’s healing. Seek medical treatment immediately if you have:
- Blisters over more than 20% of your body (such as a whole leg, your entire back or both arms) or severe swelling.
- Extreme pain.
- Fever of more than 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Signs of dehydration, including dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, thirst and reduced urination.
- Signs of infection, including pus seeping from blisters.
- Sunburn in a baby less than 1 year old.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does a sunburn lead to skin cancer?
UV rays from the sun damage your skin cells. They can also affect your DNA, molecules that carry genetic information.
When your skin becomes sunburned, your skin’s blood vessels dilate, which leads to redness, inflammation and swelling. Your body sends immune cells to repair the damage. While some skin cells can be repaired, some die off. Others may have DNA mutations that can’t be fixed. These effects age your skin and can lead to skin cancer.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
A sunburn occurs when UV rays damage your skin. Frequent sunburns can result in premature skin aging and skin cancer. You can treat most sunburns at home, though more severe burns may need medical attention. Taking steps to reduce your risk of sunburn can greatly lessen your chances of skin damage and serious complications.
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