Sunburn, also known as Solar Erythema, is an actual burning of the skin caused by the Ultra Violet rays of the sun. On a cellular level, melanocytes produce melanin, (the skin’s protective coloring (pigment), to protect the skin from UV rays. If the amount of UV rays exceeds the amount of melanin produced to block them, sunburn is the result. Microscopic changes happen as a consequence. There is a reduction in the primary cells that participate in our immune system fighting against inflammation and infection.
Sunburn all year round
Sunburn is not only an issue during the summertime. Sunburn can also be caused by exposure to other sources of UV light such as tanning beds. UV radiation is also highly reflected by sand, snow and ice. Some medicines, like certain antibiotic, can make your skin easier to sunburn. As well, medical conditions, such as lupus, can make you more sensitive to the sun.
Sun exposure over time
So when our skin gets severely burnt from the UV sources, in the immediate, the result can be first or second degree burns, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances in our bloodstream, shock or worse! Later diagnoses of skin cancer can follow. Though skin cancers usually appear in adulthood, it is primarily caused by sun exposure and sunburns from as early as childhood! We have learned that just one blistering sunburn could double the chances of developing skin cancers later on in life.
Years of overexposure to UV rays can lead to premature aging, and wrinkling; brown spots and freckles; premalignant lesions, (Actinic Keratosis); and many types of skin carcinomas. Additionally, unprotected eyes can get burned by the sun causing redness, dryness and gritty sensations. “Chronic exposure of eyes to sunlight may cause Pterygium (tissue growth that leads to blindness), cataracts, and perhaps macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.”1 Sadly, I have seen this first hand in our own beach community with the older lifeguards.
With all of this in mind, accidental overexposure can happen to the best prepared or to the outdoor worker. We know there is no such thing as a “healthy tan”. Symptoms of sunburn are usually temporary, but the damage to skin cells is often permanent. By the time the skin starts to become painful and red, the damage is already done. 1
Unlike other burns, the symptoms of sunburn do not become apparent until hours later, worse in the next day or two and usually dissipate in less than a week with peeling skin as well. We know symptoms can include red, warm, tender, blistering, swollen skin; headache, nausea, fatigue and possibly fever.
Sunburn relief options
Unfortunately, even with having mankind walk on the moon, there is no quick cure for sunburned skin. There is only symptomatic relief: over the counter analgesics, cooling baths, cool compresses, drinking plenty of water to replace the lost fluids and topical moisturizing cream, like aloe and those with vitamins C and E which may help limit damage to skin cells, as the Centers for Disease Control recommends. They also suggest a low-dose (0.5%-1%) hydrocortisone cream, over the counter, which may be helpful in reducing the burning sensation and swelling of inflammation, as well as hastening the healing process. Wearing loose cotton clothing is more comfortable. And of course, avoiding the sun until the burn has resolved.
Blistering skin may be lightly covered with a dry gauze pad, remembering not to burst the blister, to avoid infection and enhance the healing process. Never pick at or peel away the top part of the blisters. Let it open on its own and when it does, cover with an antiseptic ointment. “Avoid using butter, petroleum jelly (Vaseline), or other oil-based products. These can block pores so that heat and sweat cannot escape, which can lead to infection.” 1
When to see a doctor for sunburn
Seek medical attention if the sunburn covers more than 15% of your body; fever over 101°, severe painful blisters and the following signs of possible heat exhaustion, dehydration or shock: feeling faint or dizzy, rapid pulse or rapid breathing, extreme thirst, no urine output, pale clammy skin, rash, sunken eyes, painful eyes and eyes that are photosensitive.
Clearly the best way to deal with sunburn is that it is better prevented than treated! Proactive and preventative measures are our best defense against the damaging effects.