How to Treat a Sunburn

Millions of you failed me this weekend. You got too much sun and not enough sunscreen. The result: a sunburn. It’s OK. It happens to the best of us. Now what do you do? Here are 7 tips to treat a sunburn.

A sunburn is an actual radiation burn of your skin. The ultraviolet light from the sun damaged the DNA of your skin cells, triggering these cells to die (which is a good thing since you don’t want mutated cells hanging around, causing trouble). The dead cells trigger release of inflammatory signals called cytokines that lead to redness, swelling, and pain. The dead cells will slough off in a few days leading to peeling and often uncomfortable itching.

Here are 7 ways to treat a sunburn:

  • Take anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprophen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) or aspirin. These stop inflammation and reduce the amount of redness and pain. It is important to take them early as they can help block the release of interleukins, the skin’s main sunburn cytokine.
  • Apply cool compresses and cool moisturizers. Try Eucerin Calming Cream. Put it in the refrigerator for a few hours before applying to your burn.

  • Avoid hot showers. Instead, take a luke warm bath with Aveeno Collodial Oatmeal. The oatmeal is both a soothing anti-inflammatory and a moisturizer, which are the two things your skin needs most.
  • Avoid any additional sun exposure. The best way is to cover up with clothing; applying a sunscreen to a sunburn can worsen the inflammation and itching.
  • If you have blisters, resist the urge to pop them. They form a protectant seal on your skin; if they tear, the sensitive underlayers of skin will be exposed. You won’t like it. Don’t peel off the dead skin either; rather let it slough off on its own in the shower.
  • If you have extensive burns or blistering, see your physician. He or she can prescribe topical steroids to help minimize the inflammation.
  • Avoid numbing sprays such as benzocaine. Although they can feel great when applied, they are notorious for causing allergic contact dermatitis. If you think a sunburn is bad, try adding an incredibly itchy, allergic contact dermatitis on top of a sunburn. As one of my patients put it: “Its like being tied down on a hill of fire ants.”

Post written by Jeffrey Benabio, MD.

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Photo credit: Keith Lewis

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