Medically Reviewed by Dr. David Costa Navarro
The sunburn is an inflammation of the skin caused by excessive exposure to sunlight (but also to the light of solar lamps, such as those used in beauty salons). The ultraviolet rays (or UV rays) that radiate from the sun, in fact, in addition to tanning the skin, inducing the production of melanin, also cause harmful effects on the skin. The effect depends a lot on the type of skin of each person (phototype): those with dark complexions are less sensitive to UV rays than those with blond or red hair, light skin and blue eyes. Even the parts of the body are not all equally sensitive: the eyes, the nose, the lips are more sensitive than the arms and legs. Children and the elderly are also more sensitive than adults. An important element is the time of day when you are exposed to the sun: between 11 and 15 the sun is more dangerous, especially where there are light reflecting surfaces, such as snow, water and sand.
How they manifest
The most common signs are redness of the skin (or erythema), which appears a few hours after exposure. The skin becomes painful at the slightest contact and in severe cases it is swollen, with the formation of bubbles, while general malaise, fever, headache may appear. The affected person experiences dehydration and must drink abundantly. Healing takes place over a few days (from 3 to 20) depending on the severity of the burn, and the appearance of the tan in the burned area must be interpreted as a defense mechanism of the body against any subsequent exposure to sunlight .
What are the risks
Repeated sun burns can cause premature aging of the skin (loss of elasticity, wrinkle formation), changes in the structure of the skin and, in severe cases, development of skin tumors such as melanoma.
What should be done
- Avoid further exposure to the sun’s rays until the erythema has resolved.
- Apply compresses of fresh or lukewarm water (not too cold) to relieve pain. Then use emollient and moisturizing creams.
- If the inflammation of the skin is significant, apply a cream containing 0.5% hydrocortisone (eg Lenirit); if the burned surface is extended, the use of this drug must take place on the advice of the doctor. The use of antihistamines in the form of creams is not recommended, as they can give rise to phototoxic reactions by exposure to sunlight.
- If the pain is very intense, simple oral analgesics based on paracetamol (eg Tachipirine) or ibuprofen (eg Moment) can be used.
- In the case of burns with the appearance of bubbles, the treatment is the same as in the case of heat burns.
- Drink lots of fluids.
- Prevent sunburn by exposing yourself to the sun in the first few days and using sunscreens (creams, gels and milks) with adequate protection factor. Indicatively, people with very light skin must use products with a high protection factor (e.g. 15) for as long as they are exposed to the sun, while dark-skinned people can use products with lower protection factors. Applying a sunscreen on the skin does not mean being able to expose yourself to the sun for as long as you want, but only that you can expose yourself longer before the erythema appears. For example, if in the absence of sunscreen you can expose yourself for 5 minutes without incurring the risk of erythema, with a factor 4 sunscreen you can expose yourself for 20 minutes.
- Avoid the use of deodorants, cosmetics containing bergamot and do not expose yourself to the sun if you are taking particular drugs (see Photosensitization by Drugs tab).
When to seek medical attention
- When fever appears above 39 °C.
- When the pain lasts for more than 48 hours.
- When vomiting, diarrhea, chills, rapid pulse and increased respiratory rate appear, you feel confused or manifest, shock or loss of consciousness.