How to Treat a Severe Sunburn

Three Parts:Treating Your SunburnManaging the PainUnderstanding the Danger of Sun Burns

We all know how bad the sun is for our skin, but how many of us have “slipped up” and forgotten to apply sun block? Maybe you’ve done it yourself multiple times. Excessive ultraviolet radiation (UVR) can directly damage your DNA.[1] While less-intensive exposure to the sun for short periods of time can give you a nice tan (increased skin pigmentation to protect you from ultraviolet radiation), any type of prolonged UVR exposure is detrimental to any skin type, and excessive exposure should be avoided to prevent skin cancer.[2] While sunburns can be painful, most sunburns are considered superficial first-degree burns — the mildest classification of a burn. If you’ve already been exposed to the sun and have an uncomfortable sunburn, you can’t reverse the current damage to skin, but you can relieve the pain while allowing it to heal. Luckily, almost all sunburns can be treated at home.

Part 1
Treating Your Sunburn

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    Wash the burned area thoroughly. Use mild soap and lukewarm/cool water. [3]
    • You can use a cool, damp towel applied to the affected area, but avoid any rubbing that may irritate the skin. Gently place the towel on the skin. Be sure that the temperature of the water is not too cold, as this can have negative effects on the skin immediately after a burn (cooling burned skin with excessive cold too rapidly slows down healing and increases the chances of a frostbite injury on top of the burn).[4]
    • If the burn continues to cause irritation, you can relieve this by taking frequent showers or baths in cool (mildly cool) water.[5]
    • Do not completely dry yourself out of the shower, but allow for a little moisture to remain to aid in healing.
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    Consult your doctor if your burn blisters. If your burn is very severe, you may encounter blisters and leaking pus from the blisters. It is important to keep the area clean by washing it with running water and mild soap. Blistering of your skin means you have a second degree burn and infection becomes a concern. It is important to see a doctor if your burn is blistering and leaking pus. Your doctor may choose to prescribe antibiotics and can pop blisters if necessary.[6]
    • Silver sulfadiazine (1% cream, Thermazene) can be used to treat sunburns. This acts as an antibiotic to help prevent infection around areas of compromised and damaged skin. Do not use this medication on your face.[7]
    • While you may be tempted to pop the blisters yourself, you run a high risk of infection. Since the skin is already damaged, it does not fight off bacterial infections effectively. It is best to let your doctor treat the blisters, as she can provide a sterile environment and tools.
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    Apply cold compress. If you do not have a pre-made compress, dip a towel in ice-cold water and apply to the sunburned area.[8]
    • Apply the covered cold compress for 10 – 15 minutes several times a day.[9]
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    Apply aloe vera gel to the affected area. Aloe vera gel or soy-based moisturizers are the best choice since they will cool the burn. Preliminary studies have shown aloe vera to help burns heal faster. In a review of available scientific literature, patients treated with aloe vera healed almost nine days earlier (on average) than those who went without aloe vera.[10]
    • Generally, medical professionals recommend that aloe is best used for minor burns and skin irritations, and should never be applied to an open wound.[11]
    • For soy-based moisturizers, look for organic and natural ingredients on the label. A good example is the brand Aveeno, commonly found in most stores. Soy is a plant that has natural moisturizing capabilities, which helps your damaged skin maintain moisture and heal.[12]
    • Avoid lotions or creams that contain benzocaine or lidocaine. While once used commonly in the past, these can cause irritation and allergic reactions. Avoid using petroleum oil (also known by the brand Vaseline). Petroleum can clog pores and trap heat within the skin, preventing proper healing of your skin.[13]
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    Keep your burn clean and moisturized. Try to avoid harsh lotions with perfumes, as this could cause more irritation.
    • Continue using aloe vera, soy moisturizer, or a mild lotion with oatmeal. These products are currently recommended by many doctors and they will help to keep your skin moisturized with minimal irritation so that your body can naturally heal.[14]
    • Continue taking cool showers or baths throughout the day if you are still feeling any burning. You can take multiple showers or baths to help the skin stay moisturized.
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    Avoid the sun while your skin in healing. Further exposure to the sun may cause additional damage, which may require medical attention. Your skin needs protection, so make sure to keep it covered when it is exposed to the sun or any other excessive UVR.
    • Wear fabrics over your sunburn that won't irritate your skin (avoid wool and cashmere specifically).
    • There is no “best” fabric, but a loose-fitting, comfortable, and breathable fabric (such as cotton) will keep you comfortable and may provide some additional protection from the sun.
    • Wear a hat to help protect your face from damaging UV rays of the sun. The skin on your face is especially sensitive and protecting it from the sun with a hat is a good idea.
    • When you are considering protective fabrics and clothing, a good test is to hold up the fabric to a bright light. The most protective clothing will have very little light penetration coming through.[15]
    • Avoid being outside between 10 am and 4 pm. These are peak hours for sunburn.
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    Have patience. Sunburns will heal on their own. Most sunburns will heal on their own within a few days to a few weeks. You can expect a longer time-frame if you have a second-degree burn with blistering that is closer to the 3 week healing time. Proper treatment with medical attention for second-degree blistering burns will result in the fastest recovery time. Sunburns can usually heal completely with little to minimal evidence of scarring (if any at all).[16]

Part 2
Managing the Pain

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    Take an over-the-counter pain reliever as needed. Follow all manufacturers’ directions on dosage.
    • Ibuprofen — This is an over-the-counter medication that can help to reduce inflammation, redness, and pain. Ibuprofen for sunburns is generally taken by adults in 400mg doses every 6 hours for a short period of time. Follow instructions as indicated by your doctor or the manufacturer’s label. Children under 6 months old should not take Ibuprofen. Follow the instructions on the bottle. [17]
    • Naproxen — Your doctor may alternatively prescribe this medication if ibuprofen hasn't worked for you. The upside is that the anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects will last longer once they begin. Naproxen can be found in over-the-counter medication such as Aleve.[18]
      • Naproxen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) and as such can cause some stomach discomfort.[19]
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    Use vinegar to take away the pain. Acetic acid in vinegar alleviates pain, itching, and inflammation. Pour one cup of white cider vinegar into tepid bathwater and soak. Alternatively, dab a vinegar soaked cotton swab on the most painful parts of your sunburn. Dab, don't wipe. You don't want to add any sort of friction to the outside of the burn.[20]
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    Apply some witch hazel to your sunburn. Wet a washcloth or cotton gauze with this anti-inflammatory astringent and apply to the skin three or four times a day for 20 minutes to minimize pain and itching.[21]
    • There are very few side effects of witch hazel and it is completely safe to use with children.

Part 3
Understanding the Danger of Sun Burns

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    See a doctor if you think you have sun poisoning. Sun poisoning is a term used to describe severe sunburns and reactions to UV rays (photodermatitis). If your skin develops blisters, if the burn is very painful, or is accompanied by a fever and extreme thirst or fatigue, seek medical attention immediately. These may be signs of a more serious medical condition. There may be a genetic sensitivity that causes this. Additionally, metabolic causes can result from a lack of niacin or vitamin B3.[22] The typical symptoms and treatment are described in this article, but the most severe symptoms that require medical attention include:
    • Blisters — you may experience itchiness and raised areas of your skin where you were excessively exposed to sunlight
    • Rashes — along with blisters or bumps, it is common to see rashes that may or may not be itchy. these rashes can resemble eczema
    • Swelling — there may be pain and redness in areas of excessive sunlight exposure
    • Nausea, fever, headache, and chills — These symptoms may arise as a result of a combination of photosensitivity and exposure to heat
    • If you experience these symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention right away for further evaluation of the severity of your sunburn.[23]
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    Beware of skin cancer. The two most common forms of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma — are directly related to sun exposure. These cancers form primarily on the face, ears, and hands. A person’s risk for melanoma — the most serious form of skin cancer — doubles if he has had five or more sunburns. More importantly, if you have a severe sunburn, you are at greater risk for melanoma.[24]
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    Watch out for heatstroke. Heatstroke occurs when the body fails to regulate its own temperature, and body temperature continues to rise. Since sun exposure can lead to both extreme sunburns and heat stroke, many people who experience extreme sunburns also run a risk of heatstroke. The primary signs of heatstroke are:
    • Hot, red, dry skin
    • Rapid, strong pulse
    • Extreme body temperatures
    • Nausea or vomiting[25]


  • Avoid direct sunlight on the burned area until it has healed.
  • Sometimes it takes up to 48 hours for the full extent of the sunburn to appear.
  • Do not use ice to treat a burn as it causes more damage to the sensitive skin. Always use cool running water to stop the burning process.
  • Always wear a broad spectrum sunscreen, SPF 30 or higher. Remember to reapply, especially after sweating or going in the water.

Sources and Citations

  1. Matsumura Y, Ananthaswamy HN. Toxic effects of ultraviolet radiation on the skin. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2004 Mar 15. 195(3):298-308. [Medline].
  2. Narbutt J, Lesiak A, Sysa-Jedrzejowska A, Boncela J, Wozniacka A, Norval M. Repeated exposures of humans to low doses of solar simulated radiation lead to limited photoadaptation and photoprotection against UVB-induced erythema and cytokine mRNA up-regulation. J Dermatol Sci. 2007 Mar. 45(3):210-2. [Medline].
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Categories: Stings Bites and Burns