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What is a sunburn?

A sunburn is when your skin is damaged by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV radiation comes from sunlight and devices such as tanning beds.

What increases my risk of sunburn?

  • Medicines: Certain medicines may make you more sensitive to sunlight. Talk to your caregiver to learn more about what medicines may increase your risk of sunburn.

  • Prolonged exposure: The longer your skin is under UV rays, the higher your risk for sunburn.

  • Skin tone: Very light or pale skin increases your risk of sunburn.

  • Time of day: Between 10 AM and 3 PM, the sun is hotter and puts out more UV radiation.

  • Unprotected skin: Your risk increases if you do not protect your skin with sunscreen or clothing.

What are the signs and symptoms of a sunburn?

Your signs and symptoms may appear while you are under the UV rays. They may also appear a few hours after your exposure. Your symptoms may become worse 12 to 24 hours later. You may have more than 1 of the following:

  • Red skin

  • Pain or a burning feeling

  • Swelling, and a feeling of tightness

  • Blisters

  • Itchiness

  • Peeling and flaking

How is a sunburn diagnosed?

Your caregiver will ask about your signs and symptoms and examine you. He may ask how often and how long you stay under the sun or inside tanning beds. He may also ask if you wear sunscreen or clothing to protect your skin. He may ask if anyone in your family sunburns easily or if anyone has a history of skin cancer. Tell your caregiver if you are taking any medicines, or have any other health conditions.

How is sunburn treated?

You will need to stay out of the sun and tanning beds. Treatment may decrease symptoms:

  • Use a cool compress: A cool compress or wet towel can help soothe your skin.

  • Take short baths or showers: Bathe or shower in lukewarm water. Add oatmeal, baking soda, or cornstarch to the bath water to help reduce skin irritation.

  • Use lotions or gels to keep your skin moist: These include products such as aloe vera, petroleum jelly, or ointments. These may help cool your skin and decrease pain and redness. Ask which products would be best for you to use.

  • Medicines:

    • Acetaminophen: This medicine is used to decrease pain. Too much acetaminophen can hurt your liver. Read labels so that you know the active ingredients in each medicine that you take. Talk to your caregiver before you take more than one medicine that contains acetaminophen. Ask before you take over-the-counter medicine if you are also taking pain medicine ordered for you.

    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine: This group of medicine is also called NSAIDs. NSAIDs decrease pain. This medicine may be given as a pill, or as a lotion to rub on the sunburned area. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems if they are not taken correctly.

    • Steroids: Steroids decrease redness, pain, and swelling. This medicine may be given as a pill, or used as a lotion to rub on sunburned areas.

What are the risks of a sunburn?

You may become dehydrated. Damaged cells may grow and become cancer cells that cause wounds or growths to appear on your skin. Your risk of skin cancer is increased if you had many sunburns as a child. Cancer cells may also spread to other parts of your body, such as your organs. This can be life-threatening.

How can I prevent sunburn?

  • Wear sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher: Put sunscreen on 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside, and again every 2 hours. You will need to put sunscreen on again after you swim, sweat, or dry yourself with a towel.

  • Wear clothing that will block UV rays: This includes dark, loose clothing made of a tight weave fabric. Pants, long-sleeved shirts, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses also help block UV rays.

  • Stay indoors between 10 AM and 3 PM: This will help you avoid the highest concentrations of UV rays.

  • Limit exposure: Do not stay outdoors or in tanning beds for long periods.

  • Drink liquids as directed: This will help prevent dehydration. Ask which liquids you should drink, and how much.

  • Ask about vitamin supplements: Vitamins A, C, and E may help protect your skin against UV radiation.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • Your skin is red and itchy from the sunscreen.

  • You have a new mole, or one that has changed color, shape, or size.

  • Your skin and mouth are dry, and you feel very thirsty.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • Your skin has many blisters, which break or bleed.

  • You feel dizzy, weak, or faint.

  • You have new headaches that do not go away with medicine.

  • You have problems thinking or remembering things.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.