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How to Treat a Sunburn


Let's face it. Despite our best intentions, it is still really easy to get a sunburn here in southern California. Our proximity to the equator means that the UV rays are stronger than in locations farther north, and the lack of humidity in the atmosphere to scatter the UV rays adds to the intensity with which they reach the earth's surface. Compound that with reflected UV rays bouncing back from sand and water, and you can get a sunburn in just a few hours time. Even if you aren't trying to make sunburn art, sunscreen can wash off or wear off or just not hold up. If you find yourself or your loved one in the worst case scenario, here is basic first aid for a sunburn:

  • Put a cold, damp towel on your skin. Do this for 10 or 15 minutes a few times every day. That will help take some of the heat out of your skin. You also can take frequent cool baths or showers to help relieve the pain. As soon as you get out of the bathtub or shower, gently pat yourself dry, but leave a little water on your skin. Then, apply a moisturizer to help trap the water in your skin. This will help ease the dryness.
  • Use a moisturizer that contains aloe vera to help soothe sunburned skin. Be careful not to use lotions or creams that have any of these things listed in the ingredients: petroleum, benzocaine, or lidocaine. Things with petroleum trap the heat in your skin, and benzocaine and lidocaine can bother and irritate your skin. If a particular area feels especially uncomfortable, you may want to apply a hydrocortisone cream that you can buy without a prescription.
  • Take ibuprofen if the sunburn really hurts. This will help reduce any swelling, redness and discomfort. Even if you don't normally like taking medications, ibuprofen will reduce the inflammation rather than letting it go unchecked.
  • Drink extra water. Drinking extra water when you are sunburned helps prevent dehydration.
  • Leave blisters alone. If your skin blisters, don't pop them because that opens the skin to infection. Blistered skin means you have a second-degree sunburn. See your dermatologist right away!
  • Know when to consult your doctor. If you feel dizzy, weak, sick to your stomach, cold, or just not yourself, those things can mean the sunburn is making you really sick (sun poisoning--which is a type of radiation poisoning) and you need help.
  • Take extra care to protect sunburned skin while it heals. Wear clothing that covers your skin when outdoors. Tightly-woven fabrics work best. When you hold the fabric up to a bright light, you shouldn't see any light coming through.

Although it may seem like a temporary condition, sunburn can cause long-lasting damage to the DNA in your skin cells. This damage increases your risk for getting skin cancer, making it critical to protect your skin from the sun.

For questions about your sunburn, or to learn how to better protect your skin from the sun, see a board-certified dermatologist.

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