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Different types of burns

Alternative Names 
first-degree burn from the sun

A sunburn is inflammation of the skin as a result of overexposure to the sun. The sun's ultraviolet rays destroy the outer layer of skin cells and the tiny blood vessels underneath and cause a first-degree burn.

What are the signs and symptoms of the injury? 
Most sunburns will appear a few hours after sun exposure. The most intense symptoms may not occur for as long as 24 hours afterward. The following symptoms occur most commonly:
  • red, warm, tender skin
  • blistering of the skin (second-degree burn)
  • swelling of the skin
  • chills, nausea, or rash
  • peeling
What can be done to prevent the injury? 
The best prevention is to avoid sun exposure during the peak hours between 10 am and 3:00 pm. For those who want to tan their skin, particularly fair-skinned people, sun exposure should be limited to 15 minutes on the first day, then increased gradually. Young children should avoid sun-exposure at all times. Always wear:
  • sunscreen.
  • proper clothing.
  • sunglasses.
  • proper UV light protection.
  • lip balm that contains sunscreen.
Sunscreen should be reapplied according to the instructions and after being in the water. Fair-skinned people and those whose skin is not yet tan should wear a high protection factor sunscreen.

How is the injury recognised? 
Diagnosis is usually made by a history of sun exposure, examination of the skin, and the person's own experience of the warmth and tenderness associated with sunburn.

What are the treatments for the injury? 
The treatments for sunburn are as follows:
  • cool baths
  • avoidance of repeated sun exposure
  • soothing lotions
  • over-the-counter creams that contain analgesics. Some doctors will prescribe a corticosteroid cream to speed up the healing process for people with severe sunburn.
What are the side effects of the treatments? 
Placing people, especially small or thin people, in cool baths can cause them to become chilled very easily. It is important not to allow the water to become too cool. For people with severe burns, blisters can sometimes rupture and become infected. If the ruptured blisters look infected, it is important to seek treatment. Finally, some of the lotions and ointments used for the treatment of sunburn pain can cause an allergic reaction in the affected area. Watch for any reactions.

What happens after treatment for the injury? 
Most sunburns heal within 10 days to 2 weeks if further sun exposure is avoided. It is important to realise that progressive sun exposure increases the risk for developing certain skin cancers. Therefore, people with multiple sunburns or a history of significant sun exposure should be checked frequently by a doctor for signs of these cancers.

Author: James Broomfield, MD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 21/1/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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