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How to Treat Sunburn

Sunburn is caused by over-exposure to the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. While the symptoms are usually temporary (such as red skin that is painful to the touch), the skin damage is often permanent and can have serious long-term health effects, including skin cancer.

Factors that make sunburn more likely

  • Infants and children are especially sensitive to the burning effects of the sun.
  • People with fair skin are more likely to get sunburn, but even dark and black skin can burn and should be protected.
  • The sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The sun's rays are also stronger at higher altitudes and lower latitudes (closer to the tropics). Reflection off water, sand, or snow can intensify the sun's burning rays.
  • Sun lamps can cause severe sunburn.
  • Some medications (such as the antibiotic doxycycline) can make you more susceptible to sunburn.

Symptoms

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:

  • Red, tender skin that is warm to touch.
  • Blisters that develop hours to days later.
  • Severe reactions (sometimes called "sun poisoning"), including fever, chills, nausea, or rash.
  • Skin peeling on sunburned areas several days after the sunburn.

First Aid

  • Try taking a cool bath or shower. Or place wet, cold wash cloths on the burn for 10 to 15 minutes, several times a day. You can mix baking soda in the water to help relieve the pain. (Small children may become easily chilled, so keep the water tepid.)
  • Apply a soothing lotion to the skin.
  • Aloe gel is a common household remedy for sunburns. Aloe contains active compounds that help stop pain and inflammation of the skin.
  • An over-the-counter pain medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may be helpful. DO NOT give aspirin to children.

DO NOT

  • DO NOT apply petroleum jelly, benzocaine, lidocaine, or butter to the sunburn. They make the symptoms worse and can prevent healing.
  • DO NOT wash burned skin with harsh soap.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call immediately if there are signs of shock, heat exhaustion, dehydration, or other serious reaction. These signs include:

  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Rapid pulse or rapid breathing
  • Extreme thirst, no urine output, or sunken eyes
  • Pale, clammy, or cool skin
  • Nausea, fever, chills, or rash
  • Your eyes hurt and are sensitive to light
  • Severe, painful blisters

Above content provided by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor

Posted June 2013

Contact Information

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue, Boston, MA 02215
Main Switchboard: 617-667-7000
Find a Doctor: 800-667-5356
Directions by Phone: 617-667-3000
TDD (for hearing impaired): 800-439-0183

Contact Information

Department of Dermatology
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center


330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
617-667-3753


25 Boylston Street
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
617-754-0350


304 Chestnut Street
Needham, MA 02492
617-754-0350