We all know that prevention is the best way to avoid sunburn, but sometimes even our best efforts aren't enough. And when sunburn strikes, fast action can ease the pain and prevent things from getting worse. Learn how to soothe sunburn at home -- and when it's time to see a doctor.
What is the First Sign of Sunburn?
Experts say it's important to treat sunburn as soon as you notice symptoms such as skin swelling, redness, or tenderness. Take action even before you notice any symptoms if you're worried about developing a sunburn after accidental sun overexposure.
"The first step is to take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain reliever, like ibuprofen, Aleve, Motrin, or aspirin," said Dee Anna Glaser, MD, professor and vice chairman in the department of dermatology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you are unsure if you can take over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, consult your doctor before taking any medication to treat your sunburn pain.
Glaser says that in addition to easing pain, treating sunburn early with anti-inflammatory drugs can help fight the inflammatory reaction that's going on in the body. (Taking acetaminophen or Tylenol may provide pain relief, but it won't have the same anti-inflammatory effect.) You want to take [the medication] regularly and get started as quickly as possible, even if you're not uncomfortable," said Glaser. "It may help speed recovery from the burn and reduce cellular damage that the sunburn has caused."
Glaser also recommends getting extra vitamin C every day when you have a sunburn, either through your diet or a supplement every day. Glaser says some studies have shown that taking vitamin C before sunburn develops can help reduce some of the damage, though more research is needed.
What are Home Remedies for Keeping Sunburned Skin Comfortable?
The next step in sunburn treatment is to cool the burn and soothe the skin. Here are several home remedies you can try:
- Apply topical creams and gels. These can be used for additional pain relief. Aloe Vera gel or leaves are good for cooling skin. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams may also help ease discomfort. Glaser recommends using spray medications (like benzocaine or lidocaine) for pain relief only if all other efforts to treat sunburn fail. In a small percentage of people, these "caine" products may cause a rash or reaction and make the sunburn harder to treat.
- Take cool baths. Soaking in a cool tub is gentler on the skin than standing under a shower. There isn't a lot of research to support recommendations to add baking soda or milk to the bath for relief, but Glaser says some people swear by these sunburn home remedies. If the sunburn is limited to a small area, you can soak a washcloth in cool water and apply a cool compress.
- Moisturize. As soon as you get out of the bath, gently pat your skin dry and use a gentle moisturizer. To avoid irritating sensitive skin, Glaser recommends using "blander lotions without a lot of extra ingredients like fragrance or anti-aging compounds."
- Reduce friction. Don't wear tight-fitting clothing that can further irritate sunburned skin. Applying cornstarch powder on the skin can help prevent clothing from rubbing against the skin.
- Stay hydrated. Burns draw fluid to the skin's surface from other parts of the body so it's important to drink extra fluids.
- Protect sunburned skin. As your sunburned skin is healing, shield it from the sun with protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves. You can also use sunscreen, but avoid putting chemical-based sunscreens on delicate sunburned skin. Choose zinc oxide or other natural sunscreens instead.
How Do I Care for Blisters and Peeling Skin?
Blisters are a sign of a second-degree sunburn. They are there to help your skin heal and protect it from infection, so don't break or pick them. If blisters form on sunburned areas, "think of them as mother nature's Band-Aid," says Glaser.
If fluid buildup within a blister becomes uncomfortable, she recommends using a clean, sterilized needle or pin to drain the fluid, leaving the blistered skin attached.
Glaser also advises against picking at skin that's peeling. "It's so tempting to peel, but don't pull on peeling skin," says Glaser. "It will peel beyond where it should, so [it's best to] let it happen on its own."
When Should I Call the Doctor for Sunburn?
Sunburn can usually be treated with home remedies, but medical help may be necessary in severe cases. Call your doctor if:
- Blistering sunburn covers more than 20 percent of the body
- Sunburn is accompanied by fever and chills
- You develop signs of dehydration, such as urinating less than normal, dizziness, and headache
- A child with severe sunburn seems unusually sleepy or otherwise ill
- Blisters become infected
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