Treating Sunburn

Treating Sunburn

Sunburn can run the spectrum from mild stinging and burning all the way up to a much more serious illness, in some cases requiring hospitalization.  Though the threshold for sun exposure to cause a burn is different for every single person, most of us have the unfortunate opportunity at least once in our lifetime to experience the displeasure of too much sun, and many of us can identify with Violent Femmes lyric “I blister in the sun.”

We want to dig deep into this topic to make you better prepared to avoid sunburn and to handle a burn if you do get one.

What is a Sunburn?

Sunburn is a sudden, acute injury to the skin caused by ultraviolet light radiation, which may come from:

  • sunlight
  • tanning beds
  • or other sources

The fairer your skin is, the greater the likelihood you will develop a sunburn.  Other factors including certain medications, time of year, or proximity to the equator can also influence the degree of sunburn potential.

Sunburns & Skin Damage

Sunburns lead to skin damage in a few different notable ways.  The immediate effect of sunburn of course is to cause:

  • red
  • peeling
  • possibly blistered skin which is uncomfortable

Generally, the effects of a sunburn are going to begin within a few hours of sun exposure peaking within 1-2 days after the exposure has occurred.  The more skin affected, particularly in the form of blistering, the greater the likelihood of other complications such as:

  • infection or fluid
  • electrolyte imbalances

Additionally, the smaller the person is who has been sunburned, the greater the risk.  This is especially the case for young children.

Long Term Sunburn Effects

In the long-term, sunburn can cause permanent scarring to the skin or increase the development of moles and brown sun spots.  Often in our clinic we see patients who have developed these brown sun spots in a very well-defined area, such as the back and shoulders.  Over the long haul, repetitive sunburns or excessive sun exposure can lead to premature aging of the skin.

Here we see brown spots on the skin, lighter colored areas, and fine lines or wrinkles.  Skin damaged by long-term sun exposure may also take on a puckered or yellow type of appearance.  Any form of substantial sun exposure, whether it be by multiple sunburns or simply too much sun over time can also lead up to the development of skin cancers, including:

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • melanoma

So, what do you do if you or someone you know has a sunburn?

First and foremost, avoid any further exposure to ultraviolet light, including sunlight, tanning beds, or any other source.  Further exposure will simply act like fuel on a fire, worsening the intensity of the sunburn effects.  The next steps depend on the degree of severity of the sunburn and the individual affected.

Treating Sunburn

For mild burns in

  • adolescents
  • teens
  • adults

In most cases treating sunburn is as simple as applying over-the-counter hydrocortisone 1 percent ointment twice a day for 5-7 days will help the discomfort and rash subside much more quickly.

Other soothing agents applied to the skin which may also help the symptoms include:

  • Noxzema cream
  • aloe lotion

Periodic cool baths followed by application of a moisturizing cream like CeraVe or Vanicream may also calm the skin. Consider hydrating by drinking extra water. Avoid consuming things that could dehydrate you, including caffeine and alcohol.

Young children with Sunburns

For very young children, it is always a good idea to consult with healthcare provider for any type of sunburn.

Adults with Sunburns

For older individuals with more severe sunburns, including those affecting widespread areas of their skin, involving blisters, or having associated symptoms such as substantial pain, confusion, headache, nausea, fever, or chills, always seek immediate medical evaluation.

Advanced Dermatology of the Midlands Omaha & Council Bluffs

At Advanced Dermatology of the Midlands, board certified dermatologists, we love the adage, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ And when it comes to prevention, the following sums that up perfectly: ‘cover up, slather on, watch the clock, run and hide.’

Treating Sunburn & Protecting Your Skin from the Sun


A broad brimmed hat is always good to shield you.  Consider purchasing sun protective clothing.  This is readily available through many retailers and on the Internet.  This is clothing that is especially designed to block the sun’s harmful rays.


Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen!  It is far from perfect, and the FDA continues to change its regulations and recommendations.  However we know this can be a helpful part of the overall equation to prevent damage from the sun and sunburns.   Look for broad-spectrum sunscreens for your face and body with a SPF value of 50 or higher.  Apply two applications to all exposed skin before going outdoors.  Also reapply every few hours if staying outside.  Finally, keep in mind that sunscreen has active ingredients and just like anything else it does expire.   Check the expiration date, throw out old sunscreen and purchase new stuff on a regular basis as needed.


Depending on the time of year, peak ultraviolet rays occur during the mid-day hours, usually from 10 a.m. until approximately 4 p.m. or as late as 6 p.m.  Remember as noted above, the closer you are to the equator, especially in tropical areas, the greater your risk of sunburn.


For prevention, nothing beats staying in shaded areas or being indoors. Be extremely cautious to avoid any prolonged sun exposure for infants less than 1 year of age.  Also exercise intense precaution for toddlers and young children.   All these age groups are especially at risk for very serious consequences from sunburn.

We at Advanced Dermatology of the Midlands hope that this review on sunburns & treating sunburn is helpful to you and your loved ones as we move through the changing seasons here in the Midwest. For any information or to make an appointment please contact us today.