Alas, you didn’t heed the dermatologist’s advice to wear sun-protective clothing, seek out shade, reapply sunscreen, or limit your exposure to prolonged direct sunlight, and now you have sunburn! Or you got caught by surprise because it was not sunny out, and you didn’t think the sun’s ultraviolet radiation could penetrate the clouds on the grey / overcast day (now you learned the hard way that ultraviolet A (UVA) can penetrate the clouds).
How to treat sunburn
1. Stay cool
The first recommendation is not to panic. Yes, intense sun-exposure and sunburns have indeed been linked through *retrospective* studies to the development of certain types of skin cancer. That being said, despite the pleadings of mothers and physicians alike, many of us have experienced a sunburn in our life (yes, even yours truly), and only a fraction of us will go on to develop skin cancer in the sun-burned areas. It’s not great you developed a sunburn, but you are not destined to develop skin cancer in the sunburned area. Just don’t do it again.
Next step is to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, as long as you are allowed to by your primary care physician (if you have an allergy, kidney failure, a bleeding disorder, a gastric or duodenal ulcer, etc., for example, you are going to want to skip this step). Aspirin is probably best, so go ahead and take 81 to 325mg daily over the next several days. This will work to limit the skin inflammation and act as a pain-reliever. Some advocate taking high dose Vitamin-D within 1 hour of developing the sunburn, although the safety of the dose (200,000 IU x one dose!) demonstrated to help a sunburn remains unproven and is exceeding higher than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) by the US federal government.
Another important step is going to be keeping the skin cool and comfortable. I recommend using aloe vera gel. Keeping this in the refrigerator in between uses will ensure that the application of the aloe vera gel is cooling and soothing to the skin. If you develop blisters, do not pop or rupture them. If the blisters do pop, keep the area moist with vaseline petroleum jelly. A helpful tip is to apply a topical steroid, such as 1% hydrocortisone, to the affected burned areas, twice daily for about 1 week in addition to the aloe vera gel. Stronger potency steroids are available by prescription from your primary care physician and/or dermatologist. Lastly, wearing loose-fitting clothing and avoiding rubbing/chafing on the affected areas will be a good idea. If you have Rosacea, exposure to sunlight can be a trigger for your flare-ups and, if you have Psoriasis overexposure to sunlight can worsen symptoms.
4. Stay hydrated
Be mindful of water losses. Inflamed skin, especially burned and/or blistered skin, can increase water losses and dehydrate you. Make sure you are drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration. It is essential to keep in mind that if you develop blisters on a significantly large enough area of the body, you will increase the risk of dehydration and causing dangerous fluid shifts. For example, if you are blistered on more than 5% of the body (the palm without the fingers is about 1% of the body surface area), you should seek out help from a medical professional.
5. Make it your last!
Not to sound like a broken record or your mother, but….don’t do it again! As Benjamin Franklin was purported to say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
*** The above article is not intended to provide medical advice. You should contact your dermatologist and/or primary care physician for specific advice regarding your healthcare needs.