When too much sun makes summer a LOT less fun

Categories: Emergency care  /  News

A girl shows off her sunburn on her back and shoulder

Summer vacations often go hand in hand with exposure to a lot more sun than usual. And that can lead to sunburn — putting a painful end to an otherwise pleasant time away from work or school.

Sunburn is caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation. These UV rays damage skin cells, causing pain, swelling, redness and other symptoms. Symptoms are usually at their worst 24 to 36 hours after exposure, and clear up in three to five days.

Bad or repeated sunburns can cause premature aging of the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer.

While symptoms usually resolve on their own in a few days, you can ease the suffering by following a few tips:

  • To alleviate pain and heat (skin that is warm to the touch) caused by the sunburn, take a cool (not cold) bath, or gently apply cool, wet compresses to the skin.
  • Take a pain reliever such acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • To rehydrate the skin and help reduce swelling, apply topical moisturizing cream, aloe, or 1 percent hydrocortisone cream.
  • Avoid additional sunlight until the sunburn is healed. More sun exposure will only increase the severity and pain of the sunburn.

“The best medicine always is prevention,” said Dr. Bruce Adams, chair of emergency medicine at University Health System and UT Health San Antonio. “People should limit exposure to the sun, and always use sunscreen and protective clothing.”

To prevent sunburn, it’s best to avoid excessive exposure to the sun between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the peak hours for sunlight. Wear sunscreen rated SPF 15 or higher UVB protection, applying it 30 minutes for sun exposure and reapplying the same amount every two hours. Wear protective clothing such as hats and long sleeves. And avoid tanning salons.

Dr. Adams said people should seek medical help from your physician or an urgent care center or emergency room if you’re experiencing:

  • Severe symptoms such as intense pain, itching or extensive blistering covering a large part of your body. That may represent a more serious sunburn, sometimes called “sun poisoning.”
  • Nausea, vomiting, dehydration, headache or lightheadedness, which could be a sign of heat exhaustion.

More information is available at University Health System’s Health Library.

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