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Sunburn

Definition

A sunburn is reddening of the skin that occurs after you are exposed to the sun or other ultraviolet light.

Alternative Names

Solar erythema: Burn from the sun

Considerations

The first signs of a sunburn may not appear for a few hours. The full effect to your skin may not appear for 24 hours or longer. Possible symptoms include:

Symptoms of sunburn are usually temporary. But  the skin damage is often permanent and can have serious long-term effects, including skin cancer. By the time the skin starts to become painful and red, the damage has been done. Pain is worst between 6 and 48 hours after sun exposure.

Causes

Sunburn results when the amount of exposure to the sun or other ultraviolet light source exceeds the ability of the melanin to protect the skin. Melanin is the skin's protective coloring (pigment). Sunburn in a very light-skinned person may occur in less than 15 minutes of midday sun exposure, while a dark-skinned person may tolerate the same exposure for hours.

Keep in mind:

Factors that make sunburn more likely:

Sun’s effect on skin

Watch this video about:
Sun’s effect on skin

Home Care

If you do get a sunburn:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call a health care provider right away if you have a fever with sunburn. Also call if there are signs of shock, heat exhaustion, dehydration, or other serious reactions. These signs include:

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The doctor will perform a physical exam and look at your skin. You may be asked questions about your medical history and current symptoms, including:

Prevention

Sunburn is better prevented than treated. Ways to prevent sunburn include:

References

Krakowski AC, Kaplan LA. Exposure to radiation from the sun. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: 2011:chap. 14.

Lim HW, Hawk JLM. Photodermatologic disorders. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV, eds. Dermatology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 87.


Review Date: 5/15/2013
Reviewed By: Kevin Berman, MD, PhD, Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial Team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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