Diagnosis

Your doctor is likely to conduct a physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms, UV exposure and sunburn history.

If you develop a sunburn or skin reaction after minor exposures to sunlight, your doctor might recommend a test where small areas of skin are exposed to measured amounts of UVA and UVB light to try to mimic the problem (phototesting). If your skin reacts to the UV light, you're considered sensitive to sunlight (photosensitive).

Treatment

If you've been sunburned, it may take two days for the severity of your burn to become evident and several more days for your skin to begin to heal.

Sunburn treatment doesn't heal your skin, but it can reduce pain, swelling and discomfort. If care at home doesn't help or your sunburn is very severe, your doctor might offer additional treatments or admit you to a hospital.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Once sunburn occurs, you can't do much to limit damage to your skin. But the following tips might reduce your pain, swelling and discomfort:

  • Take a pain reliever. For pain relief take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve) as soon as possible after sun exposure. Some pain relievers are gels that you apply to your 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) per tub. Cool the skin several times a day.
  • Apply a moisturizer, lotion or gel. An aloe vera lotion or gel or calamine lotion might be soothing.
  • Drink water to prevent dehydration.
  • Don't break intact blisters. If a blister does break, clean it 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, continue to moisturize.
  • Take an anti-itch drug. An oral antihistamine such as diphenhydramine might help relieve itching as the skin begins to peel and heal underneath.
  • Apply a corticosteroid cream. For mild to moderate sunburn, apply over-the-counter corticosteroid cream to the affected area.
  • Protect your sunburn from further sun exposure. While your skin heals, stay out of the sun, or protect your skin if you do go out.
  • 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 in children younger than age 2 without supervision from a health care professional. If you're an adult, never use more than the recommended dose and consider talking with your doctor 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 doctor. Before you go to your appointment, list the medications you're taking — including vitamins, herbs and over-the-counter drugs. Some drugs increase your sensitivity to UV light.

Questions to ask your doctor about sunburn include:

  • Can I use over-the-counter 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 recommend while the sunburn heals?
  • What suspicious changes in my skin might I watch for?

If your sunburn is severe or your doctor notices any skin abnormalities, you might be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin diseases (dermatologist) for further evaluation.

July 17, 2020
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