When to See a Doctor About Sunburn & What to Do First If You Get One

Don't try to manage a second-degree sunburn at home.

When to See a Doctor About Sunburn & What to Do First If You Get One

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As summer winds down, people make it their mission to pack in as much outdoor time as possible. And why not? Unless you’re reading this article from your apartment in Rio, it’s going to be tough to get in that vitamin D come November. But if you’re not good at applying (and reapplying!) sunblock, you may wind up closer to “scorched” at the end of a long beach day. In 2010, 37.5 percent of adults reported getting sunburned, and the CDC hopes to lower that to 33.8 percent by 2020. But once the damage has been done, what’s the best option for a quick recovery? And do you ever need to see a doctor about a sunburn? Here are some of the best ways to protect yourself, and what to do if you find yourself with a next-level sunburn.

Six Degrees of (Skin) Separation

A sunburn occurs when ultraviolet A or B rays damage DNA. Your immune system responds and causes local inflammation. The blood vessels become engorged, causing redness, while the damaged skin becomes swollen and tender. The damage is usually evident within a few hours of sun exposure.

The extent of the damage determines the depth and symptoms of the sunburn. You’ve probably heard of first-, second-, and third-degree burns – all of which refer to the depth of the burn, and whether it’s affecting structures below the skin. (Doctors generally favor more descriptive labels to describe burns – like “superficial” or “deep partial-thickness” – but the degrees just sound more dramatic.)

A sunburn is typically a first- or second-degree burn. A first-degree burn affects just the epidermis, the top layer of skin, causing redness and mild pain. A second-degree burn affects the deeper layer of skin, known as the dermis, and causes swelling, blistering, and more severe pain. Most people who report sunburns are talking about first-degree burns, but if sunscreen is totally ignored and you're exposed to the sun for a prolonged period of time, you could be left with a more serious second-degree burn. 

Is It Safer In the Late Afternoon? And Other Myths About Prevention

Multiple sunburns greatly increase your risk of melanoma, so even if you’re not bothered by redness and pain, you should still take precautions. Although the sun is most intense between 11 am and 3 pm, it’s important to protect your skin whenever the sun is up.

It’s best to just wear sun-resistant clothing or apply sunblock throughout the day. Make sure to use at least SPF 30, and don’t be stingy: the sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, and sooner if you’ve been in the water. (Even “sun-resistant” sunscreens are actually just washed off.)

So What's The Cure For Sunburn?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you’ve already been burned, however, here a few basic tips to control your symptoms and accelerate the healing process:

  • Apply aloe vera gels to red, damaged skin in order to keep them moist and relieve some pain.
  • Take ibuprofen for pain relief as needed.
  • Wash blisters with mild soap and water and then cover them with bandages, taking care to apply the adhesive portion away from the blistered skin.
  • See your doctor if you experience fever, lightheadedness, or nausea, as it may be a sign of a more severe burn that requires intravenous fluids. 
  • Also see your doctor if the sunburn is extremely painful or it appears infected, meaning that part of it is draining pus or has red streaks extending into the adjacent skin. You should also see your doctor if the burn is not improving with the above-listed measures.

This article was written and produced by AmIDying.com and originally appeared on its website. You can order the Am I Dying?! book to learn more about other diagnoses. 


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