Sunburn | Doctors On Call | Your House Call Doctor

With the December summer holiday season upon us many people will be hitting the beaches or even just spending more time outdoors.  Despite health warnings about sun damage, many of us still subject our skin to the sun’s burning rays.  More than one-third of adults and nearly 70% of children admit they’ve gotten sunburned within the past year. 

To ensure that we take care of ourselves, especially when we are exposed to long hours of sunlight, we at Doctors on Call want to share some important facts about sunburn to help you to protect yourselves & your families.

What is Sunburn?

Sunburn is red, painful skin that feels hot to the touch.  It usually appears within a few hours after too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from sunshine or artificial sources, such as sunlamps.

Intense, repeated sun exposure that results in sunburn increases your risk of other skin damage and certain diseases. These include dry or wrinkled skin, dark spots, rough spots, and skin cancers, such as melanoma.

Symptoms of Sunburn

Signs and symptoms of sunburn usually appear within a few hours after sun exposure. But it may take a day or longer to know the full extent of your sunburn.

Sunburn signs and symptoms include:

  • Pinkness or redness
  • Skin that feels warm or hot to the touch
  • Pain, tenderness and itching
  • Swelling
  • Small fluid-filled blisters, which may break
  • A headache, fever, nausea and fatigue if the sunburn is severe

Sunburn affects the Whole Body

Any exposed part of your body — including your earlobes, scalp and lips — can burn.

Even covered areas can burn if, for example, your clothing has a loose weave that allows ultraviolet (UV) light through.

Your eyes, which are extremely sensitive to the sun’s UV light, also can burn. Sunburned eyes may feel painful or gritty.

What Causes Sunburn?

We already know the simple explanation behind sunburn. When our skin is exposed to the sun for a period of time, eventually it burns, turning red and irritated.

Under the skin, things get a little more complicated. The sun gives off three wavelengths of ultraviolet light:

  1. UVA
  2. UVB
  3. UVC
  • UVC light doesn’t reach the Earth’s surface.
  • The other two types of ultraviolet light not only reach your beach towel, but they penetrate your skin. Skin damage is caused by both UVA and UVB rays.
  • But sun damage isn’t always visible. Under the surface, ultraviolet light can alter your DNA, prematurely ageing your skin.
  • Over time, DNA damage can contribute to skin cancers, including melanoma.

How your Body deals with UV Light

  • A suntan is your body’s way of blocking the UV rays to prevent sunburn and other skin damage.
  • When you’re exposed to UV light, your body protects itself by accelerating the production of melanin. Melanin is the dark pigment in the outer layer of skin (epidermis) that gives your skin its normal colour.
  • The extra melanin creates the darker colour of a tan.
  • But the protection only goes so far. The amount of melanin you produce is determined genetically.
  • Many people simply don’t produce enough melanin to protect the skin well. Eventually, UV light causes the skin to burn, bringing pain, redness and swelling.

Risk factors

  • You can also get sunburn on cool, hazy or cloudy days.
  • As much as 80 percent of UV rays pass through clouds. Snow, sand, water and other surfaces can reflect UV rays, burning your skin as severely as direct sunlight.

Specific Risk factors for sunburn include:

  • Having light skin, blue eyes, and red or blond hair
  • Living or vacationing somewhere sunny, warm or at high altitude
  • Working outdoors
  • Mixing outdoor recreation and drinking alcohol
  • Having a history of sunburn
  • Regularly exposing unprotected skin to UV light from sunlight or artificial sources, such as tanning beds
  • Taking a drug that makes you more likely to burn (photosensitizing medications)

Complications from Repeated Sun Exposure

Intense, repeated sun exposure that results in sunburn increases your risk of other skin damage and certain diseases.

These include:

Premature ageing of your skin

Sun exposure and repeated sunburns accelerate the skin’s ageing process, making you look older than you are.  Skin changes caused by UV light are called photoaging.

The results of photoaging include:

  • Weakening of connective tissues, which reduces the skin’s strength and elasticity
  • Deep wrinkles
  • Dry, rough skin
  • Fine red veins on your cheeks, nose and ears
  • Freckles, mostly on your face and shoulders
  • Dark or discoloured spots (macules) on your face, back of hands, arms, chest and upper back — also called solar lentigines (len-TIJ-ih-neze)

Precancerous skin lesions

  • Precancerous skin lesions appear as rough, scaly patches in areas that have been damaged by the sun. They may be whitish, pink, tan or brown
  • They’re usually found on the sun-exposed areas of the head, face, neck and hands of light-skinned people. These patches can evolve into skin cancer
  • They’re also called actinic keratoses (ak-TIN-ik ker-uh-TOE-seez) and solar keratoses

Skin cancer

Excessive sun exposure, even without sunburn, increases your risk of skin cancer, such as melanoma

It can damage the DNA of skin cells

Sunburns in childhood and adolescence may increase your risk of developing melanoma later in life

  • Skin cancer develops mainly on areas of the body most exposed to sunlight, including the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms, hands and legs.
  • Skin cancer on the leg is more common in women than in men
  • Some types of skin cancer appear as a small growth or a sore that bleeds easily, crusts over, heals and then reopens
  • With melanoma, an existing mole may change or a new, suspicious-looking mole may develop
  • A type of melanoma called lentigo maligna develops in areas of long-term sun exposure, it starts as a tan flat spot that slowly darkens and enlarges.

It is important to consult with a Doctor such as Doctors on Call if you notice a new skin growth, a bothersome change in your skin, a change in the appearance or texture of a mole, or a sore that doesn’t heal.

Eye damage

  • The sun can also burn your eyes
  • Too much UV light damages the retina, lens or cornea
  • Sun damage to the lens can lead to clouding of the lens (cataracts)
  • Sunburned eyes may feel painful or gritty
  • Sunburn of the cornea is also called snow blindness

Wear sunglasses when outdoors. Choose sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection. Check the UV rating on the label when buying new glasses. Darker lenses are not necessarily better at blocking UV rays. It also helps to wear sunglasses that fit close to your face and have wraparound frames that block sunlight from all angles.

Prevention of Sunburn

Use these methods to prevent sunburn, even on cool, cloudy or hazy days.   Be extra careful around water, snow and sand because they reflect the sun’s rays.  In addition, UV light is more intense at high altitudes.

  • Avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The sun’s rays are strongest during these hours, so try to schedule outdoor activities for other times. If you can’t do that, limit the length of time you’re in the sun.  Seek shade when possible.
  • Avoid sun tanning and tanning beds. Using tanning beds to obtain a base tan doesn’t decrease your risk of sunburn.
  • Cover up. When outside, wear a wide-brimmed hat and clothing that covers you, including your arms and legs. Dark colours offer more protection, as do tightly woven fabrics.
  • Consider using outdoor gear specially designed to provide sun protection. Check the label for its ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), which indicates how effectively a fabric blocks damaging sunlight. The higher the number, the better.
  • Use sunscreen frequently and generously.
  • Apply water-resistant sunscreen and lip balm with an SPF of 30 or greater and broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays
  • About 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors, apply sunscreen generously on skin that won’t be protected by clothing
  • Put on more sunscreen every 40 to 80 minutes, or sooner if it has washed off from swimming or sweating
  • If you’re also using insect repellent, apply the sunscreen first
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend products that combine an insect repellent with a sunscreen.

Generally, all sunscreen is required to retain its original strength for at least three years. Check the sunscreen labels for directions on storing and expiration dates. Throw sunscreen away if it’s expired or more than three years old.

Sun Protection for Babies & Toddlers

  • The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends using other forms of sun protection, such as shade or clothing, for babies and toddlers.
  • Keep them cool and hydrated
  • You may use sunscreen on babies and toddlers when sun protective clothing and shade aren’t available
  • The best products for them are those that contain physical blockers (titanium oxide, zinc oxide), as they may cause less skin irritation

Medications that Increase Your Sensitivity to the Sun

  • Be aware of medications that increase your sensitivity to the sun.
  • Common drugs that make you more sensitive to sunlight include antihistamines, ibuprofen, certain antibiotics, antidepressants, antipsychotics and some cholesterol-lowering drugs.
  • Talk with your pharmacist about your medication side effects.

Treatment of Sunburn

Sunburn Relief

Sunburn treatment is designed to attack the burn on two fronts — relieving reddened, inflamed skin while easing the pain.

Here are a few home remedies for sunburn:

  • Compresses: Apply cold compresses to your skin or take a cool bath to soothe the burn.
  • Creams or gels. To take the sting out of your sunburn, gently rub on a cream or gel containing ingredients such as:
    • Menthol
    • Camphor
    • Aloe
    • Refrigerating the cream first will make it feel even better on your sunburned skin.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water and other fluids so that you don’t become dehydrated.
  • Avoid the sun: Until your sunburn heals, stay out of the sun.
  • Sunburn may take several days or longer to fade.
  • Generally, within a few days, your body may start to heal itself by “peeling” the top layer of damaged skin; you will generally also experience itching. After peeling, your skin may temporarily have an irregular colour and pattern.
  • A bad sunburn may take several days or longer to heal.
  • When to see a doctor such as Doctors on Call

See your doctor if the sunburn:

  • Is blistering and covers a large portion of your body
  • Is accompanied by a high fever, extreme pain, headache, confusion, nausea or chills
  • Is accompanied by dry mouth, thirst, reduced urination, dizziness, and fatigue, which are signs of dehydration
  • Doesn’t improve within a few days

Also, seek medical care if you notice signs or symptoms of an infection. These include:

  • Increasing pain and tenderness
  • Increasing swelling
  • Yellow drainage (pus) from an open blister
  • Red streaks leading away from the open blister

Doctors-on-Call, your house-call-doctor service, are able to advise & assist you with the treatment of sunburn and sunburn related complications

It is a good idea to have a ‘house call doctor’ like Doctors-on-Call  number at hand, especially if you or anyone in your family are suffering from some of the more severe sunburn related symptoms & risk factors discussed above

Timeous and effective treatment of sunburn symptoms is crucial to ensure the appropriate relief and precautionary measures are taken, as well as to lower the likelihood of serious complications