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First Aid - Heat Exhaustion
First Aid - Heat Exhaustion

Sunburn - Face
Sunburn - Face

Sunburn - Back
Sunburn - Back

  • Red, painful skin following sun exposure

General Information

  • Most sunburn is a first-degree burn that turns the skin pink or red. Prolonged sun exposure can cause blistering (a second-degree burn). Sunburn never causes a third-degree burn or scarring.
  • The pain and swelling starts at 4 hours, peaks at 24 hours, and improves after 48 hours.
  • Long-term sun exposure increases the risk of skin cancer and causes aging of the skin.

If not, see these topics
  • Chemical or thermal burn, see BURNS

When to Call Your Doctor

Call 911 Now (you may need an ambulance) If
  • Passed out (fainted)
  • Difficult to awaken or acting confused
  • Very weak (unable to stand)
Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If
  • You feel weak or very sick
  • Unable to look at lights because of eye pain
  • Looks infected (e.g., draining pus, red streaks, increasing tenderness after day 2)
  • Extremely painful sunburn, and not improved after taking pain medication
Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If
  • You think you need to be seen
  • Many small blisters are present
  • Blisters are present on face
  • Blister larger than 1 inch (2.5 cm)
Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If
  • You have other questions or concerns
Self Care at Home If
  • Mild sunburn and you don't think you need to be seen
  • Sunscreen and protection from the sun, questions about

Home Care Advice for Sunburn
  1. Ibuprofen for Pain: For pain relief, begin taking ibuprofen (e.g., Advil, Motrin) as soon as possible. Adult dosage is 400 mg every 6 hours. If anti-inflammatory agents such as ibuprofen are begun within 6 hours of sun exposure and continued for 2 days, they can greatly reduce your discomfort. If you can't take ibuprofen, use acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) instead.
    • Do not take ibuprofen if you have stomach problems, kidney disease, are pregnant, or have been told by your doctor to avoid this type of anti-inflammatory drug. Do not take ibuprofen for more than 7 days without consulting your doctor.
    • Do not take acetaminophen if you have liver disease.
    • Read the package instructions thoroughly on all medications that you take.
  2. Hydrocortisone Cream: Apply 1% hydrocortisone cream as soon as possible and then three times a day for 2 days. If begun early, it may reduce swelling and pain. If you don't have any hydrocortisone cream, use a moisturizing cream until you can get some.
    • Keep the cream in the refrigerator (Reason: it feels better if applied cold).
    • Available over-the-counter in U.S. as 0.5% and 1% cream.
    • Available over-the-counter in Canada as 0.5% cream.
  3. Cool Baths: Apply cool compresses to the burned area several times a day to reduce pain and burning. For larger sunburns, give cool baths for 10 minutes (caution: avoid any chill). Add 2 oz. baking soda per tub. Avoid soap on the sunburn.
  4. Extra Fluids: Drink extra water on the first day to replace the fluids lost into the sunburn and to prevent dehydration and dizziness.
  5. Broken Blisters:
    • For broken blisters, trim off the dead skin with a fine scissors (Reason: these hidden pockets can become a breeding ground for infection).
    • Apply antibiotic ointment (e.g., Bacitracin) to the raw skin under broken blisters. Reapply twice daily for 3 days.
    • Caution: leave intact blisters alone (Reason: the intact blister protects the skin and allows it to heal).
  6. Expected Course: Pain usually stops after 2 or 3 days. Skin flaking and peeling usually occur 5-7 days after the sunburn.
  7. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Pain becomes severe and not improved after taking pain medication
    • Pain does not improve after 3 days
    • Sunburn looks infected
    • You become worse
How to Prevent Sunburn
  1. Prevention - Reduce Sun Exposure:
    • Try to avoid all sun exposure between 10 am and 3 pm.
    • You can get a sunburn while swimming. Water only blocks the ultraviolet radiation a little. 
  2. Prevention - Clothing:
    • Wear a wide-brim hat; it protects your face and neck from the sun.
    • Wear shirts with long sleeves when outdoors and pants that go down to at least your knees.
  3. Prevention - Use Sunscreen:
    • Apply sunscreen to areas that can't be protected by clothing. Generally, an adult needs about 1 oz of sunscreen lotion to cover the entire body.
    • You should reapply the sunscreen every 2-4 hours. You should also reapply after swimming, exercising, or sweating.
    • A sunscreen with a rating of SPF 15 to 30 should be used. Sunscreens with ratings higher than 30 provide minimal additional protection.
    • Sunscreens help prevent sunburn, but do not completely prevent skin damage. Thus, sun exposure can still increase your risk of skin aging and skin cancer.
  4. Vitamins C and E: Vitamins C and E have anti-oxidant properties, which means they help prevent sun damage to cells in your skin. Taking vitamins C and E by mouth may partially reduce the sunburn reaction.
    • The adult dosage of vitamin C (ascorbic acid): 2 grams by mouth once a day.
    • Adult dosage of vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol): 1000 IU by mouth once a day.
    • Caution: Prevention is the key. Remember to reduce sun exposure and use sunscreens.
    • Read the package instructions thoroughly on all medications that you take.

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Author and Senior Reviewer: David A. Thompson, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 1/19/2009

Last Revised: 3/21/2007

Content Set: Adult HouseCalls Online

Portions Copyright 2000-2009 Self Care Decisions LLC; Copyright LMS, Inc.

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