Sunburns are very unpleasant, but the symptoms go away after a few days. However, sunburn should not be taken lightly because every sunburn that a person suffers increases the risk of skin cancer, mainly when they occur during childhood or adolescence.
Sunburns can appear very quickly without adequate sun protection. Children and people with light or sensitive skin (phototype I or II) are especially vulnerable.
Sunburns can not only promote the development of cancer. In addition, each burn accelerates the aging of the skin, which is manifested, for example, in the form of spots and wrinkles. From a medical perspective, a sunburn is a skin burn caused by UV (ultraviolet) radiation. The affected skin will appear red, stinging or burning, and often also with pain (first-degree burn). If the burn is more severe, blisters can form on the skin, in which case we would be facing a second-degree burn. They may also be accompanied by fever, nausea, or circulatory disorders; it is crucial to go to the doctor in these cases.
What is sunburn?
A sunburn is a burn of the skin, usually of the first degree, although second-degree burns can develop. The burn is due to ultraviolet radiation, especially UVB radiation (280 – 320 nm). First-degree burns affect the epidermis (the most superficial layer of the skin); Second-degree burns reach the dermis, a deeper layer that “separates” from the epidermis accumulating fluid between the two, resulting in the formation of blisters. In third-degree burns, there is an involvement of subcutaneous tissues, which are destroyed and necrotic.
In principle, UVA (320 – 400 nm) and UVC (250 – 280 nm) can also cause sunburn, but the radiation dose would have to be higher in these cases.
Substantial exposure to the sun or artificial sources of radiation can cause direct cell damage and lead to inflammation of the affected areas of the skin. These areas will appear red, stinging or itchy, and sometimes blisters. Later the skin will peel.
What causes sunburn?
The leading cause of sunburn is skin exposure to UV radiation too intense or too prolonged. It is the ultraviolet rays of the sun that cause sunburn.
The skin is defended with several protection mechanisms and repair against damage caused by UV light, but these mechanisms are limited. A sunburn occurs when the skin pigmentation that is responsible for blocking UV radiation is not enough. This is the case of people with very clear skin (especially with skin types I and II), children or after intense solar radiation.
The rays then penetrate to the deeper layers of the skin, giving rise to the production and releasing inflammatory mediators. This leads to an inflammatory response with the typical symptoms of sunburn.
The most common causes of sunburn are:
- Staying under the sun for too long
- Usage of sun protection products with a too low protection factor
- You are underestimating solar radiation by reflections, for example, on cloudy days, in the shade, water, or snow. Both ice and snow reflect about 80% of the sun’s UV rays as almost doubling the intensity of exposure. The sand on the beach also reflects a lot of radiation.
- Prolonged stay at high altitudes because there is more ultraviolet exposure
- Ingestion of certain drugs or the application of essential oils that increase sensitivity to light
What are the symptoms of sunburn?
When sunburn occurs, the first symptoms appear during the first six to eight hours after exposure to the sun. Inflammatory redness of the skin appears (UV erythema), associated with a burning sensation, burning and itching, and sometimes blistering.
Redness is limited to areas of skin exposed to the sun. In later evolution, the skin is peeling. If the sunburn affects the face, it can also cause conjunctivitis.
In the case of large or very intense sunburns, the affected person can suffer from fever, nausea and circulatory alterations; In addition, blisters may form on the skin. Urgent medical attention must be sought. Children with sunburn should also receive medical treatment regardless of the severity of their condition.
Side effects such as headache, dizziness, vomiting and chills or even a circulatory collapse may indicate heat illness such as heat stroke or sunstroke.
How is sunburn diagnosed?
In sunburn, the doctor usually diagnoses based on the typical symptoms, which occur between six and eight hours after exposure to the sun.
With minor burns, it is not necessary to consult a doctor. However, if the affected area is vast, blisters have formed on the skin, or intense skin reactions are present, it is advisable to consult a doctor. The doctor can perform a scan to determine the severity of the sunburn. With symptoms such as fever, nausea or circulatory disorders, visit the doctor as a precaution.
How to treat sunburn?
You should treat sunburns as soon as possible. Treatment depends on the severity of the burn. What to do if you have a burn? No matter how intense the sunburn is. It is essential to avoid any additional exposure to the sun until the sunburn has completely healed.
Gels, moisturizing lotions, wet and cold compresses need to be changed or applied several times a day to relieve sunburn. For pain you can take analgesics like paracetamol or anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen. It is also advisable to drink lots of liquids such as water or juices. If the burn is in the process of healing, you should take care of the affected skin with a rehydration cream.
In severe solar burns with blisters and accompanied by headaches, fever, chills or circulatory disorders, it is essential to consult a doctor. Children with sunburn also need to be examined by a doctor, no matter how intense the burn.
Your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids in the form of creams to reduce inflammation. The use of oral corticosteroids is only needed for severe cases. Severe and extensive burns, especially in the elderly and children, should be checked in a hospital.
What is the evolution of sunburn?
Sunburn usually develops within the first 6-8 hours after sun exposure and peaks between 12 and 24 hours later. After about 72 hours, the symptoms begin to recede. In the course of burns, the skin usually peels off. Usually, the sunburns resolve in a week or two.
An extensive sunburn with blisters is a sign of a second-degree burn. In this case, there may be sequelae such as thickening of the skin (solar hyperkeratosis) and also white (depigmented) scars. In children and the elderly, the risk of shock is more likely. Sunburns would be a risk factor for skin cancer (melanoma, basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma), even if they occurred decades ago. It is essential to avoid burns, especially in childhood.
How to prevent sunburn?
Sunburns can be avoided. People with fair skin, blondes, redheads, freckles and those with many moles are more likely to burn. In addition, children with a family history of skin cancer and any other sensitive skin are most likely to be under adequate sun protection.
But what helps to be protected against sunburn?
It is essential to protect especially young children from solar radiation. Whenever possible, direct exposure to the sun should be avoided between 11 am and 4 pm and, the rest of the time, do not allow the sun to sunbathe. Infants less than six months old should never be exposed to direct sunlight.
Taking certain natural products such as St. John’s wort or drugs (gastric protectors such as omeprazole, anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen and some antihypertensives, antibiotics and benzodiazepines) may increase sensitivity to light, so avoid direct light.
To avoid any danger of sunburn, follow these tips:
- Avoid too intense UV radiation. Direct sunlight and midday sun are not recommended. Even in the shade, due to reflections, UV irradiation reaches the skin. Therefore, use adequate protection. On cloudy days sunburns can also develop as up to 90% of the UV rays pass through the clouds.
- Wear protective clothing. Wearing appropriate clothing protects against sunburn better than sunscreen. It is essential to choose long, breathable clothing. Very young children should always be on the beach wearing a T-shirt. Some clothes block the passage of UV rays.
- Protect head and eyes. Especially if you are in the midday sun, head protection is indispensable; The best is a hat covering the whole head. Also, sunglasses are essential.
- Use suitable sun protection products. Solar products with a high sun protection factor are recommended, applied at least half an hour before sun exposure. At the beginning of the season, higher sun protection factors should be used. Every solar product has to be well distributed and re-applied after bathing, even if it indicates that it is water-resistant.
Anyone who uses sunscreen should not forget that unprotected skin can protect itself for only 10 to 30 minutes, depending on skin type—sunbathing with sun creams increases this time by an amount corresponding to the factor specified. According to the official definition, if an SPF 20 is used, it can be 20 times longer in the sun than without protection. Insensitive people, this would be about three hours. People with allergies should seek sunscreen without emulsifiers or preservatives.