Ashley Jowett
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2021

First Aid for Sunburns

Nothing ruins a summer night like a nasty sunburn. And yet, sunburns are among the most common summer conditions. They can happen in as few as 15 minutes but sometimes go unnoticed for hours. Here’s what you need to know about sunburns, including how to prevent them, recognize them, and how to treat them.

The greater risk. It’s so important to prevent sunburns. Far beyond the few days or a week of discomfort you experience when you get a sunburn, there’s the increased risk for skin cancer. With every burn, your risk increases substantially. It is heightened for those who have moles or freckles, fair skin or hair, or a family history of skin cancer.

Prevent burns. The best way to prevent sunburns is to put something between you and the sun. The shade of a tree or building is a great deterrent. The sun is hottest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Planning your outdoor time for early morning or early evening can help. Sun-protective clothing also works well. Include a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. (You’ll look chic as you prevent a burn.) Note that it is possible to get burned through some fabrics. Also, while clouds seem as if they would provide protection, it is possible to get a burn on a cloudy day.

Most people rely on sunscreen for sun protection. Look for and SPF of 30 or higher and an indication that the product protects against both UVA and UVB rays. What’s tricky about sunscreen is knowing if you’ve covered your skin adequately. Be sure to slather it on thickly and to cover entirely. You are likely to get burned wherever you are not fully covered. People often get burned at the borders of their clothing, for instance.  Apply the sunscreen under the straps of your swimsuit and slightly under the sleeves of your shirt to ensure you’re covered. Let the sunscreen dry for 15 – 30 minutes before sun exposure. And reapply every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating. 

Monitor your skin while outdoors and move to the shade if it seems like you are getting burned. Burns appear as skin redness and warmth. They can also be painful and itchy. Serious burns come with blistering or peeling, swelling, and headache. In some cases, people can experience nausea, fever, chills, and dizziness. In most cases, the worst of the symptoms occur 12 – 24 hours after the exposure.

Home treatment. If you get home and discover you have a burn, follow these steps:

  • Apply a clean washcloth wet with cool tap water to the area. This will help reduce the heat in the skin.
  • Use an after-sun moisturizer or gel. Those containing aloe are particularly soothing. Calamine lotion may also feel good against the burn. If you use an oil-based lotion, be sure to cool the skin before applying.
  • Several natural home remedies for topical sunburn relief can be found at https://www.webmd.com/first-aid/sunburn-treatment.
  • Drink plenty of water. This will help prevent dehydration, which is common among sunburn sufferers.
  • If blisters develop, do not break them. If they break on their own, clean them gently with a mild soap and water, apply antibiotic ointment, and cover with a non-stick gauze bandage.
  • It’s OK to take a pain reliever, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to help minimize swelling and discomfort. Use dosing instructions on the package. If you take ibuprofen, be sure to take it on a full stomach.  For acetaminophen, be sure to not exceed 3,000 mg in a 24 hour period.
  • Avoid more sun exposure until your skin is completely healed.
  • Severe sunburns may be treated with over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream.

If you have large blisters or if the skin turns white or feels numb, seek medical care. Your provider may opt to remove the blister, as the large blisters rarely remain intact, and treat the skin beneath. As always, call 9-1-1, if you or someone you’re with seems to be having unmanageable sunburn symptoms, like visual changes or seizure. They could be a sign of a serious heat illness.  

Christine Burke, FNP, sees patients at SVMC ExpressCare in Bennington. The practice has recently relocated to the Respiratory Evaluation Center at 120 Hospital Drive on the hospital’s campus in Bennington.

 

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