Sun Burns

Basic Information

Inflammation of the skin that follows overexposure to the sun, sun lamps or occupational light sources.

Frequent Signs and Symptoms
  • Red, swollen, painful and sometimes blistered skin
  • Fever (occasionally)
  • Nausea and vomiting (severe burns)
  • Delirium (severe, extensive burns)
  • Tanning or peeling of the skin after recovery, depending on severity of the burn

Excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. This is not screened out by thin clouds on overcast days, but it is partially screened by smoke and smog. A great deal of ultraviolet light reflects from snow, water, sand and sidewalks

Risk Increase With
  • Genetic factors, especially fair skin, blue eyes, and red or blonde hair
  • Exposure to industrial light sources, such as welding arcs
  • Use of drugs, including sulfa, tetracyclines, amoxicillin or oral contraceptives
Preventive Measures
  • Avoid the sun from noon to 3 p.m
  • Use a sun-block preparation for outdoor activity. Products with a sun-protective value of 15 or more protect almost totally. Those with lower values offer partial protection and allow minimal tanning. Some of these resist water and perspiration, but reapply them after swimming or after prolonged exposure. Baby oil, mineral oil or cocoa butter offer no protection from the sun
  • For maximum protection, use a physical-barrier agent such as zinc-oxide ointment. Reapply after swimming and at frequent intervals during exposure Barrier agents are especially helpful on skin areas that are most susceptible to burns, such as the nose, ears, backs of the legs and back of the neck
  • If you rarely burn, use a sun-screen product that permits tanning and provides minimal protection
  • Wear muted colors such as tan. Avoid brilliant colors and whites, which reflect the sun into your face.
  • If you insist on tanning, limit your sun exposure on the 1st day to 5 to 10 minutes on each side. Add 5 minutes per side each day.
Expected Outcomes

Spontaneous recovery in 3 days to 3 weeks, depending on the severity of the sunburn

Possible Complications
  • Skin changes leading to skin cancer, including life- threatening malignant melanoma
  • Keratoses, premalignant skin lesions
  • Premature wrinkling and loss of skin elasticity
  • Temporary delirium in worst cases
General Measures
  • To reduce heat and pain, dip gauze or towels in cool water and lay these on the burned areas
  • Apply cold cream or baby lotion
  • For badly blistered skin, apply a light coating of petroleum jelly. This prevents anything from sticking to the blister
  • Soak in a tub of cool water to which colloidal oatmeal (Aveeno) or baking soda has been added. Pat skin dry, do not rub
  • Use non-prescription drugs, such as aspirin or acetaminophen, to relieve pain and reduce fever. Non-prescription burn remedies that contain local anesthetics, such as benzocaine or lidocaine, may be useful, but they produce allergic reactions in some persons
  • Pain relievers or cortisone drugs to use briefly may be prescribed

Rest in any comfortable position until fever and discomfort diminish. Cover yourself with an upside-down “cradle” or tent of cardboard or other material to keep bed linens off the burned skin


No special diet. Increase fluid intake.

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