When "Sun" Does Not Equal "Fun"

Want to have your time in the sun without hurting for days after? Read on

Mother applying sunscreen on her daughter

We've all heard how too much sun can hurt us. And unless you really have spent your whole life under a rock, you've most likely had sunburn at least one time.

Sunburn is actually more than just a burn – it's inflammation, in other words, "swelling" or "irritation," that happens when your skin gets more sun or other ultraviolet, or high-intensity, light than it can handle. In fact, in the middle of the day, a person with very fair or light skin can burn in less than 15 minutes of sun.

A few things to know:

  • There's no such thing as a "healthy" tan. Too much time in the sun without sunscreen (an oil or cream that protects your skin) speeds up aging of the skin.
  • Too much sun can cause first- and second-degree burns.
  • Even though skin cancer mostly shows up in adults, it is often due to too much sun and sunburn in childhood.
  • Babies and children burn much more easily than adults.
  • People with fair skin are more likely to get sunburn, but even dark skin can burn and should be protected.
  • The sun's rays are strongest from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • The sun is also stronger in the mountains and closer to the tropics.
  • When the sun shines off water, sand, or snow, its' rays burn more.
  • Sun lamps can cause major sunburn.
  • Some medicines, like the antibiotic doxycycline, raise your chances of sunburn.

General sunburn treatment tips

  • As soon as you can, take a cool bath with two ounces of baking soda mixed into the tub water. Don't use soap.
  • Gently use a light moisturizer on sunburned skin. Thick or greasy lotions trap heat and block sweat glands.
  • DON'T use first-aid or pain-relief medicines with benzocaine, lidocaine, or petroleum (like Vaseline). They can cause allergic reactions, rashes, and more pain.
  • Try wiping burned skin with a cloth soaked in milk. Some skin doctors say too much sun "cooks" our skin's proteins, and since milk has protein, it can help heal.
  • You can also try a steroid cream like hydrocortisone.
  • DON'T put ice or butter on sunburn. It doesn't work, and it can hurt things more. You can try a cold pack or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a washcloth.
  • Part of sunburn healing is itching and peeling. There's really not much you can to for it besides using non-greasy lotion and trying not to scratch.

Of course, the best thing is to watch your time in the sun. If you're going to be in it for a while, cover your skin with either light clothing or a good sunscreen.

Other things that can come with sunburn

Dehydration (loss of body fluids) – Drink water to bring body fluids back to normal. Juice or sports drinks will also work but aren't as good as water.

Headache or mild fever – Take acetaminophen (Tylenol® or Panadol®), aspirin (WARNING: DO NOT GIVE ASPIRIN TO CHILDREN), or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine like Advil®, Motrin®, Aleve® or Naprosyn® for headache, slight fever, or chills.

Blisters – Try an antibiotic cream like polymyxin B or bacitracin. Try to keep the blistered places clean and watch for signs of infection. Also, since blisters can mean a more serious burn, it's a good idea to check with your doctor.

When it's worse than it looked at first

Sunburn rarely means a trip to the doctor, and most people don't need to worry too much about wrinkles or skin cancer.

But if you're running a fever, there's a chance you could have heat stroke. This is a big danger to children who can also be dehydrated easily. In these cases, it's better to be safe than sorry, so see a doctor right away.

Other signs of too much sun that need fast medical care:

  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Rapid pulse or rapid breathing
  • Strong thirst, no urine output, or sunken eyes
  • Pale, clammy, or cool skin
  • Upset stomach, fever, chills, or rash
  • Your eyes hurt and are bothered by light
  • Severe, painful blisters

As for long-term worries like skin cancer, the most important things to watch are moles or places on your skin that change color and start to itch or bleed. If this happens, don't take chances. Call a dermatologist right away.

An ounce of protection

For sunburn, an ounce of protection is prevention – and prevention is really the only cure. A half-hour before going into the sun, put on a high-SPF (Sun-Protection Factor) sunscreen. At least 30 SPF is best. By applying sunscreen a half-hour ahead, you give it time to soak in. Don't forget your face, nose, ears, and shoulders.

Put more sunscreen on every two hours and after swimming. Wear a sun hat, UV-blocking sunglasses, lip balm with sunscreen, and the right clothes. You can even buy special sun-protective clothing now.

And trust us: when you're even just a little careful, you can still have plenty of fun in the sun – and you won't have to live with the burn afterward.

Material for this article was gathered from various sources including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia (the National Institute of Health), and www.skincancer.org.

For specific references, visit: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003227.htm

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