Sunburn: Causes, Symptoms And When To See A Doctor


In hot summer weather, dehydration and excessive sweating can lead to illness, but it's not just your health that is at risk, your skin is vulnerable too. Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause severe inflammation known as sunburn. Sunburn is not the same as tanning; it's the acute inflammatory response of the skin to excessive exposure to UV radiation from the sun. It occurs when the skin is overexposed to UV radiation. In this Connector guide, we will explore the causes and symptoms of sunburn to help you stay safe in the sun.

How Common Is Sunburn 

Sunburn is common, especially among young people, regardless of skin tone. The severity of sunburn depends on one's skin type and sun exposure. Lighter skin is more susceptible to sunburn due to lower melanin content, while darker skin tends to tan rather than burn.

Adding to this, Dalya Sager, Senior Medical Aesthetician and skincare expert says, "Everyone can get sunburnt, however skin type l, ll and lll on the Fitzpatrick scale (fair skin) are more susceptible due to lighter skin tones and less melanin in the skin. Melanin is a pigment found in the skin and acts as a protective element by absorbing the harmful rays of the sun and UV sources, it is stimulated when there is over exposure this stimulation of melanin and production of the pigment causes the skin to tan or change to a darker colour. Burning happens when the body is unable to produce more melanin for protection; the extra UV light that’s not absorbed will start causing burning to the skin."

What Causes Sunburn 

While sunburn is quite common, Dr. Asima Nasir, Medical Director at Orskin Aesthetics Clinic says, "Infants and children are especially vulnerable to sunburn, and fair-skinned individuals are at higher risk. However, it's important to note that even darker skin tones can burn and should be protected. The sun's rays are most intense between 10am and 4pm, and they're stronger at higher altitudes and closer to the equator. Additionally, surfaces like water, sand, or snow can intensify the sun's burning rays. Sun lamps and certain medications, like doxycycline, can increase susceptibility to sunburn, while conditions like lupus can heighten sensitivity to the sun."

Other common causes are:

  • Sun exposure
  • Strength of UV rays
  • Tanning bed usage without sunscreen

What Are The Symptoms Of Sunburn

As per Dalya Sager, Senior Medical Aesthetician and skincare expert, "Sunburn manifests itself on the skin as a burn. The skin will feel hot to the touch and very sensitive along with redness and swelling and possible blistering."

Sunburn can progress through different stages, influenced by factors like skin type, sun exposure duration, and UV ray intensity. Adding more to this, Dr Asima Nasir at Orskin Aesthetics Clinic, says, "Sunburn risk is primarily determined by the amount and length of UV exposure, as well as by medication use, time of day, ozone depletion, high altitude, clear skies, and skin phototype."

Some common symptoms include:

  • Redness on lighter skin; harder to see on darker skin unless peeling or blistering occurs.
  • Skin feels hot, tight, and sensitive to touch.
  • Pain, tenderness, and swelling are common symptoms.
  • Itchiness and blistering may occur.
  • Light skin may turn red, while darker skin may darken.

Besides this, Dr Juwariya Tasneem Syeda, Specialist Dermatology and Cosmetology, Aster Clinic, Bur Dubai, highlights that deeper burns may appear as small, fluid-filled blisters which may break open to form erosions. If sunburn is severe, one may develop weakness, fatigue, headache, painful gritty eyes, fever and dehydration.

How Long Does It Take For Your Skin To Heal From Sunburn 

The healing process of sunburn varies based on its severity. Usually, your skin begins to calm down within a few days, and the body may naturally start shedding the top layer of damaged skin. Sunburn symptoms typically emerge within 3 to 5 hours after sun exposure and reach their peak at 24 to 48 hours. Therefore, it's crucial to stay indoors during the first three days after getting sunburnt to allow your skin time to heal.

Dalya Sager, Senior Medical Aesthetician and skincare expert advises against picking at blisters if they develop and recommends treating peeling skin gently.

How Can You Treat Sunburn At Home

Here are some basic things that you must do at home: 

  • Gently cool the skin with a damp cloth, towel, or cool bath.
  • Apply moisturiser or aftersun cream, like aloe vera.

Here are some basic things that you should avoid doing:

  • Don't touch or pop small blisters to prevent infection.
  • Refrain from scratching or picking at peeling skin.

Additionally, Dr Juwariya Tasneem Syeda from Aster Clinic, Bur Dubai, suggests that you must wash the sunburnt area with cold water to reduce the inflammation (avoid using ice cubes application directly on the skin). Apply emollients and moisturisers, and if there are blisters, use tropical steroids with systemic antihistamines (medicines used for allergies) and pain-relieving medications. Drink plenty of water and wear loose-fitting clothes.

When To Visit Doctor 

If you have attempted to soothe your skin at home with the mentioned remedies and several days have passed without improvement, it's time to consider seeking medical assistance. Dr Juwariya Tasneem Syeda from Aster Clinic, Bur Dubaialso adds it is wise to meet a dermatologist if you develop moderate to severe sunburn. 

Signs of moderate sunburn:

  • Formation of blisters on the skin which later open to form erosions.
  • Pain and itching in the sunburn.

Signs of severe sunburn:

  • Blistering of the skin.
  • Fever, headache, fatigue, malaise, chills, and dehydration.

These symptoms are life-threatening and may require hospitalisation.

What Are Some Effective Methods To Prevent Sunburn 

Dr Asima Nasir at Orskin Aesthetics Clinic, suggests these methods: 

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher. A broad-spectrum sunscreen protects from both UVB and UVA rays. 
  • Apply a generous amount of sunscreen to cover exposed skin fully. Reapply sunscreen. 
  • Use a lip balm with sunscreen. 
  • Loose cotton clothing should be worn.
  • Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

Adding to this, Dr Juwariya Tasneem Syeda from Aster Clinic, Bur Dubaisays that one must avoid peak sunlight hours between 10am to 4pm when UV rays are the strongest. And while venturing out, it is better to wear sunglasses that provide UV protection and use wide-brimmed hats to protect the face and the neck.

Sharing her inputs on this Dalya Sager, Senior Medical Aesthetician and skincare expert, adds, "It’s also advisable to avoid exposure during peak times of the day from 11am to 3pm especially if living in a hot and sunny country. if exposure is non-preventable then applying and then reapplying sunblock every 2 hours is advisable."

Strategies To Protect Skin From Sunburn During Outdoor Activities Or Vacations 

Dalya Sager, Senior Medical Aesthetician and skincare expert suggests that if exposure to the sun during peak time is unpreventable, it is advisable to wear UV-protective clothing or full-length sleeves along with the application of sunblock. If water is involved ensure the sunblock or SPF used is oil-based so that it does not wash off easily and the reapplication or SPF is advisable every 2-3 hrs. Staying well-hydrated also helps.

In summary, while it's not always possible to avoid sun exposure entirely, taking necessary precautions can help prevent sunburn and severe sunburn.

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