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Sunburn


Alternative Names:

Solar erythema: Burn from the sun

Considerations:

The first signs of a sunburn may not appear for a few hours. The full effect to your skin may not appear for 24 hours or longer. Possible symptoms include:

  • Red, tender skin that is warm to the touch
  • Blisters that develop hours to days later
  • Severe reactions (sometimes called sun poisoning), including fever, chills, nausea, or rash
  • Skin peeling on sunburned areas several days after the sunburn

Symptoms of sunburn are usually temporary. But  the skin damage is often permanent and can have serious long-term effects, including skin cancer. By the time the skin starts to become painful and red, the damage has been done. Pain is worst between 6 and 48 hours after sun exposure.

Causes:

Sunburn results when the amount of exposure to the sun or other ultraviolet light source exceeds the ability of the melanin to protect the skin. Melanin is the skin's protective coloring (pigment). Sunburn in a very light-skinned person may occur in less than 15 minutes of midday sun exposure, while a dark-skinned person may tolerate the same exposure for hours.

Keep in mind:

  • There is no such thing as a "healthy tan." Unprotected sun exposure causes early aging of the skin.
  • Sun exposure can cause first and second degree burns.
  • Skin cancer usually appears in adulthood. But it is caused by sun exposure and sunburns that began as early as childhood. You can help prevent skin cancer by protecting your skin and your children's skin from the harmful rays of the sun.

Factors that make sunburn more likely:

  • Infants and children are very sensitive to the burning effects of the sun.
  • People with fair skin are more likely to get sunburn. But even dark and black skin can burn and should be protected.
  • The sun's rays are strongest during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The sun's rays are also stronger at higher altitudes and lower latitudes (closer to the tropics). Reflection off water, sand, or snow can make the sun's burning rays stronger.
  • Sun lamps can cause severe sunburn.
  • Some medications (such as the antibiotic doxycycline) can make your skin easier to sunburn.
  • Some medical conditions (such as lupus) can make you more sensitive to the sun.
Sun’s effect on skin
Sun’s effect on skin
When to Contact a Medical Professional:

Call a health care provider right away if you have a fever with sunburn. Also call if there are signs of shock, heat exhaustion, dehydration, or other serious reactions. These signs include:

What to Expect at Your Office Visit:

The doctor will perform a physical exam and look at your skin. You may be asked questions about your medical history and current symptoms, including:

  • When did the sunburn occur?
  • How often do you get sunburn?
  • Do you have blisters?
  • How much of the body was sunburned?
  • What medicines do you take?
  • Do you use a sunblock or sunscreen? What type? How strong?
  • What other symptoms do you have?
References:

Krakowski AC, Kaplan LA. Exposure to radiation from the sun. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: 2011:chap. 14.

Lim HW, Hawk JLM. Photodermatologic disorders. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV, eds. Dermatology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 87.


Review Date: 5/15/2013
Reviewed By: Kevin Berman, MD, PhD, Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial Team.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 2002 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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