by Kimberly Allen R.N.
A sunburn is defined as a burn to living tissue, like skin. The burn is the result of an inflammatory process that occurs from excess exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The most common source of UV radiation is the sun’s rays, however, there are other artificial sources such as welding arc’s and the UV lamps that are used in tanning beds. It is the bodies response to the direct DNA damage. This damage occurs as a result of the excitation of DNA by the UV-B light. The body recognizes the damage and initiates several defense mechanisms. In addition to the defense mechanisms it will increase melanin production as protection against future damage.
A sunburn typically presents as redness along with pain that varies depending on the duration of exposure and the intensity of the UV rays. Other common symptoms of sunburn include swelling, nausea, fever,and dizziness. The affected skin will also be warm to touch and give off heat.
It can take as little as 15 minutes of exposure to the sun or if exposed to sources of intense UV light such as welding arc’s the burn can occur in a few seconds. The intensity of the sun varies, for example it’s much greater in the south near the equator than in the north.
I had lived in Maine all my life and was unfamiliar with the sun’s intensity in the southern states. I went to a lake in Texas with some friends and the first day there I laid out in the sun for only 15minutes and received the worst sunburn I’d ever had. My ankles and feet swelled and turned purple. I couldn’t put enough aloe on fast enough. The severity of a sunburn doesn’t show right away.
Typically the skin will start turning red after 30 min. but many times it takes 2-6 hours. The pain also usually presents in the first 2-6 hours, and is usually the worst during the first 48 hours. The actual sunburn will continue to develop for 24 to 72 hours after exposure. If the burn is severe blisters will begin to develop usually after 72 hours followed by the skin peeling. The peeling and itching can last for several weeks depending on the severity of the burn.
The eyes are sensitive to exposure to the sun as well. Exposure to UV light can lead to age related macular degeneration and cataracts.
The treatment of sunburns are aimed at managing the discomfort and promoting the healing process. These include, but are not limited to, using cool compresses on the burned areas, frequent cool baths or showers. There are a variety of home remedies ranging from tea baths to applying vinegar to the burn areas. The use of lotions containing aloe vera are helpful especially to relieve the itching. Time is the biggest component needed to heal a sunburn. The most important thing to remember when caring for a sunburn is to avoid further exposure to the sun during the healing process.
The best treatment for a sunburn is prevention. The World Health Organization recommends limiting the amount of time exposed to the sun especially during mid day (between 10AM and 4PM). Other recommendations include wearing protective clothing along with a wide brimmed hat and use of sunscreen. Sunscreens that have been rated as SPF 10 block 90% of the UVB radiation that causes sunburns. The best protection results with sunscreen application 15-30 min before and repeating the application 15-30 min after exposure. Studies show that some common foods like tomato products and chocolate if eaten for a period before sun exposure can increase the skin’s ability to resist damage by UV light.
Sunburns have been linked to 2 types of cancer, basal cell and malignant melanoma. A child that receives one or more blistering sunburns has more than double the chance of developing melanoma later in life. More than 5 sunburns received at any age more than doubles the risk for melanoma.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.