Diagnosis

Diagnosing sunburn generally includes a physical exam. Your health care provider might also ask about your symptoms, current medications, UV exposure and sunburn history.

If you have sunburn or a skin reaction after only a short time in the sun, your health care provider might suggest phototesting. This is a test where small areas of skin are exposed to measured amounts of UVA and UVB light to mimic the problem. If your skin reacts to phototesting, you're considered sensitive to sunlight (photosensitive).

Treatment

Sunburn treatment doesn't heal your skin, but it can ease pain, swelling and discomfort. If care at home doesn't help or your sunburn is very severe, your health care provider might suggest a prescription corticosteroid cream.

For severe sunburn, your health care provider might admit you to a hospital.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Try these self-care tips for sunburn relief:

  • Take a pain reliever. For pain relief, take a nonprescription pain reliever as soon as possible after getting too much sun. Examples include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others). Or try a gel pain reliever that you rub on the skin.
  • Cool the skin. Apply to the affected skin a clean towel dampened with cool tap water. Or take a cool bath with added baking soda — about 2 ounces (60 grams) a tub. Cool the skin for about 10 minutes several times a day.
  • Apply a moisturizer, lotion or gel. An aloe vera lotion or gel or calamine lotion can be soothing. Try cooling the product in the refrigerator before applying. Avoid products made with alcohol.
  • Drink extra water for a day. This helps prevent dehydration.
  • Leave blisters alone. An intact blister can help the skin heal. If a blister does break, trim off the dead skin with a clean, small scissors. Gently clean the area with mild soap and water. Then apply an antibiotic ointment to the wound and cover it with a nonstick bandage.
  • Treat peeling skin gently. Within a few days, the affected area may begin to peel. This is your body's way of getting rid of the top layer of damaged skin. While your skin is peeling, keep using moisturizer.
  • Take an anti-itch drug. An oral antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Chlor-Trimeton, others) might help relieve itching as the skin begins to peel and heal underneath.
  • Apply a soothing medicated cream. For mild to moderate sunburn, apply nonprescription 1% hydrocortisone cream to the affected area three times a day for three days. Try cooling the product in the refrigerator before applying.
  • Treat sunburned eyes. Apply a clean towel dampened with cool tap water. Don't wear contacts until your eye symptoms have gone away. Don't rub your eyes.
  • Protect yourself from further sun exposure. While your sunburn heals, stay out of the sun or use other sun-protection measures. You might try a product that has moisturizers and sunscreen.
  • Avoid applying '-caine' products, such as benzocaine. Such creams can irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction. Benzocaine has been linked to a rare but potentially deadly condition that decreases the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry (methemoglobinemia).

  • Don't use benzocaine on children younger than age 2 without supervision from a health care provider. If you're an adult, never use more than the recommended dose and consider talking with your health care provider before using it.

Preparing for your appointment

Most sunburns heal fine on their own. Consider seeking treatment for severe or repeated sunburn. You're likely to first see your primary care provider. Before you go to your appointment, list the medications you're taking — including vitamins, herbs and nonprescription drugs. Some drugs increase your sensitivity to UV light.

Questions to ask your health care provider about sunburn include:

  • Can I use nonprescription medications to treat the condition, or do I need a prescription?
  • How soon after I begin treatment can I expect improvement?
  • What skin care routines do you suggest while the sunburn heals?
  • What suspicious changes in my skin might I watch for?

If your sunburn is severe or your health care provider notices unusual skin signs, you might be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin diseases (dermatologist).

June 24, 2022
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