Sunburn - symptoms and treatment

Lesley Dobson / 20 May 2016 ( 21 June 2017 )

It can be hard to resist basking in the sunshine in summer. But be careful of sunburn – and increasing your risk of skin cancer. Read our guide to sunburn and staying safe in the sun.



Sun Facts

The sun gives off ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UVA makes our skin age, but isn’t a major cause of sunburn. UVB on the other hand, causes most cases of sunburn, which can increase your risk of developing skin cancer.

It’s worth knowing a few facts about the sun, to help prevent skin damage. The sun is at its hottest – and the UVB rays at their strongest - from 11am to 3pm in the UK. (If you’re travelling abroad, check the hottest time of day in your destination.)

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UV rays can reflect off a number of surfaces. Snow reflects the most – about 75% of UV rays bounce off this (useful to remember if you like skiing). Sand reflects about 15% of UV rays, concrete can reflect around 10% and water can reflect 5 – 10%.

Don’t think you’re safe from sunburn if it’s cloudy or overcast. Around 30-40% of the sun’s rays can get through clouds.

Gardeners' skin cancer risk

Protect yourself from these reflected rays by remembering to top up your sun cream every two hours, and wearing sunglasses, even if you’re in the shade. And remember to cover up, with long sleeves, trousers or skirts, a hat and sunglasses.

Check whether you are taking medication that might put you at higher risk of sunburn. The antibiotic doxycycline, for instance, can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, which can cause a number of reactions, including sunburn.

(Doxycline can be prescribed for a range of conditions, including urinary system infections and respiratory tract infections.)

How to protect your skin while sunbathing

What's your skin type?

Knowing your skin type is important. People who are in the Type 1 category often have freckles, red or fair hair, and blue or green eyes. Their skin often burns in the sun and very rarely tans.

Right at the other end of the scale are those in the Type V1 category, who have black-brown hair and eyes, and black-brown skin. Type V1 people rarely burn, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to spend all day in the baking sun. If you’re a Type V1 you should still stay out of the sun in the middle of the day, and wear SPF factor 15+ sunscreen.

The British Association of Dermatologists carried out a survey to mark Sun Awareness Week in May 2016. They found that 80% of us don’t put suncream on before we go out in the sun, and don’t re-apply it shortly afterwards (as recommended). We need to do this to make sure that the sunscreen is fully absorbed before we go out in the sun.

In a previous survey carried out for the British Association of Dermatologists, 72 per cent said that they had burned in the sun the year before. This is worrying because being sunburned more than doubles your risk of developing melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer.

Sunshine - now the good news 

Sunburn

If you’re out in the sun long enough to be sunburned, it can damage the DNA in the affected skin cells. If this happens too often, the cells can grow much faster than they should, and this can cause skin cancer.

However, before you get to that stage you will have the immediate – and uncomfortable – problem of sunburn. If you’ve ever been sunburned you’ll know the symptoms; hot, red, sore skin for around a week or so.

Within a few days of being sunburned you’ll notice that the upper layer of your skin has become flakey, and started to peel. This is how your body sheds the damaged area of skin.

Heat exhaustion

The exact symptoms of sunburn vary, depending on how damaged your skin is. You may only have slight redness, but this does still count as sunburn. At the more extreme end, when you have been badly sunburned, your skin may blister, and you may have headaches and dizziness and feel sick. The last three symptoms mean that you could have heat exhaustion. The pain that can come with more serious sunburn tends to be at its worst between six to 48 hours after being in the sun.

Treatment for sunburn

If you have minor sunburn there are steps you can take to make it less painful.

  • Keep the burned area cool by having a cold or cool bath or shower. You can also put cool, clean, wet flannels gently on the damaged area.
  • Stay out of the sun – in a cool place indoors if possible.
  • If you can’t get out of the sun straight away, cover the burned area with a light shirt, towel, or other fabric, until you can reach shade.
  • Make sure you drink enough. A cool drink, little and often is ideal, and will help prevent you becoming dehydrated.
  • If the sunburn is mild, after-sun lotion may make the burn a little more comfortable. Depending on how damaged your skin is, your GP may suggest applying hydrocortisone cream for a short period.

Severe sunburn

Severe sunburn can make you feel really unwell. Typical symptoms include having a high temperature 38C (100.4F), and chills. You may also have a headache and feel dizzy and nauseous.

The most obvious symptoms of severe sunburn are swelling and blistering of the burnt skin. If you have blisters that burst, they may become infected. If this happens make sure you see a doctor as soon as possible.

If you have severe sunburn, see your GP if the symptoms cover a large area of your skin and are painful and making you feel ill. If you aren’t sure if you need to see a GP, check with your local pharmacist. Make sure you tell them which medications you take.

In severe cases of sunburn you may need to have burn cream and burn dressings applied by a nurse or GP.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.