Sunburn Risks, Treatment and Prevention

Of the many factors associated with sunburn, one of the most important is skin type.


Older adults and young children are more susceptible to sunburn than young and middle-aged adults.

ID 77770312 © Wisutaporn Jingjit |

Most, if not all, skin diseases are caused by overexposure to the sun. If the sun does not cause them, many of them are made worse by exposure to the sun’s UV rays. However, there are benefits to sun exposure, particularly in the case of UV rays, which help the body produce vitamin D that older adults often lack.

The key is to minimize your sun exposure and make efforts to protect yourself at all times. Of course, the most immediate, short-term problem caused by the sun is sunburn. According to the NIH, sunburn occurs when the amount of exposure to UV rays, whether from the sun or from artificial sources, exceeds the body’s ability to produce melanin. Melanin is a protective pigment responsible for tanning, and a suntan is the body’s way of shielding itself against UV rays.

Four Hours After Exposure

Sunburn symptoms begin to appear about four hours after exposure, get worse during the next six to 48 hours, and begin to subside in three to five days. In a mild case of sunburn, the skin becomes red or pink, warm, and tender. In more severe burns, the symptoms also include pain, swollen skin, and possible blisters.

By the time your skin is painful and red, the damage has been done. If a large area is burned, you might have a headache, fever, nausea, or fatigue. The skin will begin to peel three to eight days after exposure. Recovery ranges from several days to three weeks.

Any part of the body can be sunburned, including the eyes. Sunburned eyes are red, dry, painful, and gritty-feeling. Long-term effects of chronic exposure to the sun include cataracts and perhaps macular degeneration, an age-related loss of central vision.

Older adults and young children are more susceptible to sunburn than young and middle-aged adults. A study of more than 100,000 nurses found that those who had at least five blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 had an 80 percent higher risk for melanoma, and a 68 percent greater risk of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Not everyone reacts to the sun the same way. It often depends on skin type, length of exposure, time of day and year, geography, and drugs that person is taking.

Which Skin Type Are You?

Of the many factors associated with sunburn, one of the most important is skin type. Several organizations, including the Skin Cancer Foundation, classify skin types from light to dark.

The closer you are to Type I (very fair, white skin), the greater your risk of sunburn now and skin cancer later. The darker your skin, the more pigmentation it has to protect itself against the sun.

A Type I or Type II person can get a sunburn in as little as 15 minutes, while a person with darker skin may be able to tolerate the same amount of exposure for several hours.

The highest risk for sunburn is between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and exposure during the summer months is most dangerous.

Higher-Risk Locations

Snow, water, and light-colored sand reflect UV rays and increase the chances you will suffer sunburn. Keep in mind that clouds may feel like protection, but in fact they do not help, as up to 80 percent of UV rays penetrate cloud cover. The higher the elevation and the closer you are to the equator, the greater your risk. The worst possible situation would be swimming or snow skiing at a high altitude in a country near the equator.

Drugs That Increase the Risk

Several drugs increase your sensitivity to sunlight and the risk of being burned. Among them are ibuprofen, sulfa antibiotics (Gantanol), doxycycline (Adoxa, Monodox), tetracycline (Periostat, Vibramycin), and diuretics (Diuril, Edecrin).

No Quick Cure

There is no quick cure for sunburn. Aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), and ibuprofen relieve pain and reduce fever. Drink plenty of water to replace lost fluids. Cool baths and wet cloths might feel good, as will moisturizing creams. A low-dose (0.5 to 1 percent) hydrocortisone cream might reduce the burning sensation and hasten the healing process.

If blisters develop, cover the area with a light bandage or gauze. Breaking the blisters will increase the possibility of infection, so allow them to resolve on their own.

See a doctor if more than 15 percent of your body is affected (for example, the upper and lower back, plus the buttocks, constitute 18 percent of your body’s skin). Also see medical help if you are dehydrated, have a fever exceeding 101 degrees Fahrenheit, or the pain persists longer than 24 hours.

Five Ways to Reduce the Risk of Sunburn

Sunscreen makes a significant difference in how the sun’s rays penetrate skin. To understand how deeply UVA and UVB rays penetrate the skin with and without protection, see “UV Penetration into the Layers of Skin.”

Here are five sunburn prevention tips provided by the CDC and NIH:

  1. Use a full-spectrum sunscreen of 30 to 50 SPF.
  2. Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before being exposed to the sun and reapply every two hours—sooner if you are in and out of water, or if you perspire heavily.
  3. Wear dark clothing with a tight weave to block UV rays.
  4. Wear a wide-brimmed hat that protects the scalp, face, ears, and neck.
  5. Avoid tanning beds.

For more information on protecting your skin, purchase Skin Care at

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Jim Brown, PhD

As a former college professor of health education, Jim Brown brings a unique perspective to health and medical writing. He has authored 14 books on health, medicine, fitness, and sports. … Read More

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