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 relatively minor exposures to sunlight, your doctor may recommend phototesting. During phototesting, small areas of your skin are exposed to measured amounts of UVA and UVB light to try to reproduce the problem. If your skin reacts to the UV radiation, you're considered sensitive to sunlight (photosensitive).
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 at-home care doesn't help or your sunburn is very severe, your doctor may offer treatment to help ease your pain or prevent infection.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Once sunburn occurs, you can't do much to limit damage to your skin. But the following tips may reduce your pain and discomfort:
- Take a pain reliever. If needed, an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve) may help control the pain and swelling of sunburn, especially if you take it soon after sun exposure. Some types of pain relievers may be applied to your skin as gels.
- Cool the skin. Apply to the affected skin a compress — such as a towel dampened with cool tap water. Or take a cool bath or shower.
- Apply moisturizer. An aloe vera lotion or gel may be soothing.
- Don't break small blisters (no bigger than your little fingernail). If a blister breaks, gently clean the area with mild soap and water, apply an antibiotic ointment, and cover it with a nonstick gauze 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.
- Protect your sunburn from further sun exposure. Stay out of the sun or protect yourself from sunlight when you go outside.
- Avoid applying "-caine" products, such as benzocaine. Such creams may 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. But you may seek treatment if you have 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, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in skin diseases (dermatologist) for further evaluation.