Treating and Preventing Sunburn

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Published on July 22, 2020

Treating and Preventing Sunburn

Photo of sunscreen lotion applied to someone's back in the shape of the sunAs we spend more time in the sun to enjoy the summer weather, some people may end up developing a sunburn if they do not apply adequate protection. Here is what you need to know about sunburn including symptoms, treatment, and tips to prevent it.

What is Sunburn?

Sunburn is a red, painful skin reaction that occurs after too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light is a type of radiation in sunlight. Even on cloudy days, UV light can pass through clouds and cause sunburn. The symptoms of a sunburn most often appear a few hours after sun exposure. They often peak at 6 to 36 hours after exposure. The symptoms are short-term (temporary) and go away in three to five days. But sunburn causes lasting (permanent) damage to the skin’s DNA.

Who is at Risk for Sunburn?

You are more at risk for sunburn if you:

  • Have fair skin
  • Have skin exposed to the sun during the day
  • Don’t wear protective clothing or sunscreen with enough sun protection factor (SPF)

What are the Symptoms of Sunburn?

Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each person. They can include skin that is:

  • Red
  • Painful
  • Swollen
  • Warm
  • Blistered
  • Dry, itching, and peeling three to eight days after the burn

Severe sunburn needs medical care right away. Symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

The symptoms of sunburn can look like other health conditions. See your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is Sunburn Treated?

Treatment will depend on your symptoms and the severity of the condition. Treatments include:

  • Taking a cool (not cold) bath
  • Gently applying a cool, wet cloth on the skin
  • Adding moisture to the skin with lotion
  • Applying aloe gel or 1% hydrocortisone cream
  • Taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain
  • A sunburn will most often heal on its own in one to two weeks. While you are healing:
  • Stay out of the sun. More sun exposure will make the burn worse.
  • Don’t pop blisters. This can lead to infection.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

Talk with your healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all medicines.

Can Sunburn be Prevented?

One way to prevent sunburn is to wear sunscreen and protective clothing. Sunscreens are chemicals that block or filter sunlight. Sunscreen comes in lotions, creams, sprays, and powders. Some have chemicals that absorb and filter the sunlight, such as oxybenzone and avobenzone. Others have chemicals that physically block the light, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. No sunscreen blocks 100% of UV light. But they help protect the skin.

When using sunscreen:

  • Wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.
  • Pick broad spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Use a waterproof or water-resistant sunscreen.
  • Apply to all exposed skin, including ears, lips, back of the neck, and tops of the feet.
  • Apply it 30 minutes before going outside.
  • Reapply it every two hours, or after swimming, exercising, or sweating.

Other ways to prevent sunburn include:

  • Stay out of the sun from 10 am to 4 pm. This is when the sun's UV rays are strongest.
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim.
  • Wear clothing that protects your skin from the sun. Some clothing is rated with UV protection factor (UPF).
  • Don’t use a tanning bed.
  • Look for shade. Shaded areas get less UV radiation.
  • Use sunscreen even in the shade. UV rays are reflected off other surfaces such as sand, snow, cement and water.


It is easy to go out for some fun in the sun, but it is important to wear skin protection and take the proper precautions to prevent sunburn from ruining your day!


© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

The information in Healthy Living Online is for educational purposes only.  It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.  The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation, or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.