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Sunburn

Intro

If you feel your sunburn is severe enough, call your doctor. You most likely will be asked how severe your condition is and if you have any other significant health problems. The doctor can then make the decision to treat you at home or in the office or refer you to an emergency department.

Conditions that should motivate you to go to a hospital's emergency department include the following:

  • Severe pain
  • Severe blistering
  • Headache  
  • Confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting
  • An acute problem with another medical condition

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Self-Care at Home

Home care starts before a sunburn. If you are prepared before going out in the sun, you probably won't need these tips and techniques.

  • Immediate self-care is aimed at stopping the UV radiation.
    • Get out of the sun
    • Cover exposed skin
    • Get out of the tanning bed
  • Relief of the discomfort becomes important.
    • Medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are useful, especially when started early.
    • For mild sunburn, cool compresses with equal parts of milk and water may suffice. You may also use cold compresses with Burow solution. You can buy this at a drugstore. Dissolve 1 packet in 1 pint of water. Soak gauze or a soft clean cloth in it. Gently wring out the cloth and apply to the sunburned area for 15-20 minutes. Change or refresh the cloth and solution every 2-3 hours.
    • Anyone raised in a beach community knows the secret of aloe-based lotions. There are many commercially available types. Ask the pharmacist at your local drugstore. Tearing apart your aloe plant in the yard and applying the cool jellylike substance inside the leaves is no longer necessary.
    • Cool (not ice cold) baths may help. Avoid bath salts, oils, and perfumes because these may produce sensitivity reactions. Avoid scrubbing the skin or shaving the skin. Use soft towels to gently dry yourself. Don't rub. Use a light, fragrance-free skin moisturizer.
    • Avoid lotions that contain topical anesthetic medications because you can become sensitized and then allergic   to that medicine.
    • Obviously, stay out of the sun while you are sunburned.

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Follow-up

Your doctor either will schedule a follow-up visit at the time of your initial evaluation and treatment or will give you instructions to return if certain problems occur. Sunburn can cause lost workdays, which in certain jobs (especially the military) can lead to disciplinary action. Furthermore, sunburn can cause premature aging and skin cancers  .

Prevention

The best prevention is to avoid the sun. This is often not practical or desired many times.

Other, more practical strategies include wearing wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, and long pants.

If this is not possible, a variety of sun-blocking agents are available for use. Some are just for the lips and face. Others are for more general-purpose use. Pay attention to the sun protection factor (SPF) and whether or not PABA is in the product. PABA should be avoided in children younger than 6 months because it can cause skin irritation.

The higher the SPF number, the more protection the sun-blocking agent may have. SPF is actually a ratio of the time it takes to produce a skin reaction on protected and unprotected skin. Thus, a 30 SPF sunscreen would in theory allow you to be exposed 30 times longer than with no sunscreen. However, this is usually not true in practice.

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