Most of us have suffered from sunburn at various times in our lives and know how painful it can be. But we often think it is worth it if it results in a golden tan. But sunburn is a sign of skin damage which if continued may lead to long term problems such as skin cancer.

Sunburn occurs when you are exposed too excessive amounts of ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunbathing, sunlamps or a sunbed which causes painful, red skin. This skin may blister and eventually peels.

Melanin and sunburn

Your skin contains a pigment called melanin which is responsible for your skin type, e.g. fair skin. The more melanin in your skin the darker it is and the easier it is to get a tan. If your skin becomes darker after being in the sun then this is due to melanin, but, it is also a sign that your skin has suffered damage as well.

A small amount of sunlight is good for your skin

Sunlight is good for your health as it contains Vitamin D which is needed for healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin D is found in certain foods as well as sunlight but you only need moderate amounts of both.

Who is at greater risk of sunburn?

Someone with blue eyes and fair skin or a redhead with a very pale skin is prone to sunburn. These skin types have low levels of melanin in their skin and find that they often burn but rarely tan.

This also applies to people who have kept out of the sun for a long time. They often burn quickly the first time they go outside in the sun.

Sunburn can occur in other weather conditions, for example a dry, sunny, warm day which is windy as well. It is easy to become tanned by the wind as well as the sun and this equally applies to sunburn. It is easy to forget and not bother to cover up or use a suncream but the sun still shines through the clouds and reaches your skin.

This is also a problem in snowy condition. Bright sunlight is reflected off the snow and directed into your skin. Again, take precautions and cover up.

If you have an outdoors job, undertake sports which are at a high altitude, e.g. climbing or live in a warm climate then again, protect your skin.

Causes of sunburn

Ultraviolet (UV) rays are the main cause of sunburn particularly UVA and UVB which penetrate into the deeper layers of skin. These rays are also found in sunbeds and sun lamps.

Exposure to these rays is an indicator of skin damage which also increases the risk of ageing and skin cancer.

Symptoms of sunburn

The severity of these symptoms depends on your skin type and how long you are exposed to the sun.

But what is common to all is bright red skin which is warm when you touch it and extremely painful. This skin starts to blister and peel after a few days.

It can take a few hours before sunburn appears. The classic situation is where you have sunbathed at midday only to develop sunburn later in the evening.

A mild form of sunburn is characterised by red, sore skin but severe forms cause other symptoms such as a fever, chills, nausea, headaches and dizziness. Your skin is severely burned and blistered which causes a great deal of pain.

There is a risk of heatstroke as well.

Diagnosing sunburn

Sunburn is impossible to miss: it presents as a painful red area of skin which blisters after a few days, resulting in flaky, peeling skin. This is something most if not all of us are familiar with.

Treatment for sunburn

There are several ways of treating sunburn which aim to reduce the pain and soreness of the burned skin. Mild cases can be treated at home but severe cases may require treatment at your GP’s surgery.

If you have mild sunburn – apply a cold flannel to the affected areas which will reduce the pain and soreness. Plus it will take the heat out of your skin. Wear loose cotton clothing to protect the area against further damage. Alternately, apply a moisturising lotion or emollient (topical cream) to the burned skin which will cool it down and ease the soreness. These are available from your pharmacist.

Another option is a hydrocortisone cream, which contains steroids, which is also applied to the affected areas. But do not rub this onto the face or any area where skin has become broken or infected. Your pharmacist will advise you about this.

Over the counter painkillers such as ibuprofen can be taken to ease the pain and swelling caused by sunburn.

Drink plenty of fluids to prevent the risk of dehydration.

Very serious cases which are accompanied by heatstroke must be treated at your local A & E (accident & emergency) department.

Complications of sunburn

Too much exposure to direct sunlight especially over a period of several years can result in long term complications. These include infection from repeated episodes of sunburn, rapidly ageing skin, photokeratitis (painful, sensitive eyes) and skin cancer.

Preventing sunburn

Sunburn can be prevented by taking a few common sense measures. It is important to do this particularly if you are fair skinned, have experienced skin cancer previously or are taking medication following a bone marrow/organ transplant.

These measures include using a sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF), limiting your exposure and covering up especially at the hottest time of the day. And wear a hat and sunglasses.

Using a sunscreen is particular important for children. Their skin is more delicate and sensitive than adults which put them at increased risk of sunburn. Use sunscreens which are specially formulated for children and apply this regularly. Ensure that they cover up where necessary, e.g. loose cotton clothing.

Avoid being outside in the sun between 11am and 2pm as this is the hottest time of the day. Keep your fluids up to prevent dehydration but choose water instead of alcohol. Alcohol has the opposite effect and causes dehydration so avoid this in hot weather.