Sunburns are the most obvious signs of being exposed to the sun for too long without adequate protection. We know better than to cook ourselves lobster red; unfortunately mistakes happen, and serious sunburns can occur much faster than you expect. This article explains what to expect and how to minimize the damage after a sunburn.
Sunburns – What Happens
Thanks to nociceptors that signal pain, sunburns are the most obvious and noticeable type of sun damage. It hurts, and you know right away that you messed up. Depending on the sunburn’s severity, you may end up looking like a cooked lobster and feel like it too. People with lighter skin tone are much more susceptible to burning and are likely to be familiar with the most common symptoms of sunburns:
- Redness of the skin
- Peeling of the skin
- Blisters (in more severe cases)
If the sunburn is severe enough, there may also be other systemic effects that can resemble the flu: Dizziness, nausea, fevers, or chills. These systemic effects, colloquially called sun poisoning result from UV rays triggering the immune system to react as if a virus was attacking it. Then there are the delayed symptoms – peeling and itching of the skin usually follows in the following few days.
As we explained in an article on sun fatigue – even mundane bouts of exposure to sunlight can be taxing for your system. The body loses water and electrolytes under heat and has to work extra hard to keep the body cool, so sun exposure is naturally exhausting. Add in an injury – and sunburns are just that – and your immune system can get overwhelmed, leaving you with a headache, drowsiness, and other flu-like symptoms. A severe enough sunburn can be a medical emergency.
Skin Cancer Risk Factor
Acute damage from sunburns also increases the lifetime risk of developing melanoma.1 While there is much publicity about the dangers of increased cancer risk and long-term sun exposure, a less publically known risk factor for developing skin cancer is the frequency of severe sunburns.2 A sunburn, therefore, is something you need to take seriously, and prevention, as always, is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself.
It has long been speculated that childhood sunburns are especially important risk factors to a lifetime risk of developing melanoma. Still, the epidemiological evidence appears to be inconclusive with conflicting results.3 It is, however, clear that sunburns, occurring at any point in life, is a significant risk factor for developing skin cancers.
Who gets Sunburns?
Anyone exposed to too much sun can get a sunburn. The major factors are:
- Duration of exposure
- The intensity of UV light
- Skin color/type
A third of Canadians have had a sunburn in the last 12 months, with men and women roughly being equally represented. 10% reported had experienced pain for more than one day.4 The good news is that only 3% of the respondents had severe sunburns. These are sobering statistics, given that even the least sun-conscious of us don’t purposely go out in the sun to get painful sunburns.5
Sunburns are often the result of an accident – either by underestimating the intensity of the sun or by falling asleep in the sun. Occasionally, your lime margarita might even be at fault. Sunburn accidents most commonly occur when you’re in an unfamiliar environment – like when you’re on vacation. If you go to a Mexican resort, you don’t expect the sun’s intensity to be that strong – coming from Canada – and then end up burning yourself. It might take you an hour or two before you burn up in Canada at 5 PM after work – but it might take you less than 20 minutes to burn closer to the equator when you are exposed to the mid-afternoon rays by the poolside in Cancun. The other common thing is to fall asleep in the sun. Sun exposure can make you drowsy, and if you clock out, you may be in for a rude awakening.
So I Messed Up. What do I do now?
Treating a sunburn is much like managing any other burn injury. There is no quick fix. There are only ways to ease the pain and speed up your recovery.
- Cool the area: It often takes a few hours until the sunburn forms – cooling the area with running cold water, or a soaked cool towel can minimize the damage.
- Hydrate: Your body needs water – and possibly electrolytes. A sunburn is an injury – and draws in fluids to the skin and thus away from the rest of your body. You need more water than usual.
- NSAIDs (Ibuprofen): Can help somewhat with inflammation
- See a doctor: Use your good judgment. If you have serious injuries – blisters covering large portions of your body or have severe systemic symptoms, you have an emergency.
While you have to wait out the sunburn until your skin heals, you want to ensure that more sunburns aren’t in your future. The best countermeasure for sunburns, of course, is not to get burned in the first place.
Be vigilant, and protect your skin from the sun. If you are on vacation, do some research first, and don’t assume that the sun is the same as it is where you live. Many factors alter how much strong the sun is. Proximity to the equator, water or snow reflecting the light, and altitude can all affect how quickly you get burned.6 Always remember your sunscreen, as well as common sense sun protection, like covering up with hats and long sleeves, staying in the shade whenever possible and reasonable, and avoiding the sun in the mid-afternoon.
1Interestingly, this study suggests that childhood sunburns are a particularly important risk factor.
4Section: Sunburn https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2017005/article/14792-eng.htm
5This contrasts with tanning – many people, despite the dangers of tanning, actively go out in the sun to acquire a tan.