Everything You Need to Know About Sunburn

sunburn symptoms, treatment and risks - young boys under umbrella on beach

Despite our best intentions and precautionary measures, sunburn accidents happen. Just a little too much time in July’s harsh UV rays or a hastey sunscreen application can leave you suffering with red, painful skin. Below, we offer info on the symptoms, treatment, and risks of sunburn.

Sunburn Basics

A sunburn is an inflammatory reaction of the skin caused by overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Symptoms generally set in about 4 hours after sun exposure, and include:

  • Red, swollen, and painful skin
  • Skin that feels itchy or warm to the touch
  • Blistering
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Dehydration

Pain worsens and peaks 24-36 hours after sun exposure. Skin peeling may occur 3-8 days after exposure.

When to Seek Care

Most sunburns are mild and can be treated at home. Take a cool bath or use cold washcloths to soothe your skin and calm the burn. Keep the affected area moisturized by applying a gentle lotion to damp skin. If it is safe for you, taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin, can help ease pain and reduce swelling. Topical 1% cortisone cream and aloe vera can also provide relief. Wear loose clothing and remember to drink plenty of water.

For more severe sunburns, our urgent care center is here for you. Visit our clinic if you experience:

  • Severe sunburns –with blisters– covering more than 15% of the body
  • Sunburn accompanied by high fever (>101°F), nausea, chills, dehydration, and/or confusion
  • Signs of infection (draining pus, red streaks, worse pain after day 2)
  • Extreme pain that persists for longer than 48 hours

Understand The Risks

People with fair skin tend to burn most easily, but anyone can get burned. Even if you tan rather than burn, or have a dark skin type that doesn’t redden, overexposure to the sun can cause cellular damage. Skin damage from sun exposure leads to premature aging and skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Just one blistering sunburn during childhood can double your chance of developing melanoma in your lifetime! It’s also important to note that skin damage is cumulative, which means it builds over time. Each sunburn increases your risk of cancer.

Take steps to prevent sunburn. Check out the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Daily Sun Protection Guide to learn how, and know that our friendly medical team is here when you need care and advice!

Why is Flattening the Curve Important?

“Flattening the curve” refers to a graph that shows the number of COVID-19 cases over time. This graph is based on the fact that over time, short of a vaccine or cure of some sort, most people will eventually get the disease. Of these people, a seemingly small percentage will need to be hospitalized. The problem is that if everyone were to get the disease within a short period of time, the total number of people who would need hospital care would exceed available beds and/or other resources.

So, what we mean by flattening the curve is reducing the rate at which people are infected. This will allow us to treat people over a longer period of time, and to increase our capacity for care over that time.

flattening the curve graphic

How do we flatten the curve?

Flattening the curve requires collective actions without considering whether you are infected or not. Social distancing, wearing face coverings, washing hands, and disinfecting surfaces are all tools we can use to slow the spread of COVID-19.

How do we know if it is working?

If measures taken to flatten the curve work, it may seem like we never needed them at all. But, that is the point! In areas where we successfully flatten the curve, and resources are not overtaxed, COVID-19 may seem no worse than a cold or the flu. The thing is, when we don’t have enough resources, things get scary very quickly. We have seen this in the U.S. already in places that have become hot spots for the disease. This followed similar horror stories from Italy and Spain.

How does testing for COVID-19 fit in?

As we are able to test more people, both to see who is currently infected and who has antibodies that show they had previously been infected with the disease, we will have additional data that will help flatten the curve.

Why is handwashing important to prevent COVID-19?

Keeping your hands clean is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Many diseases and conditions, including coronavirus, are spread in part by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water.

Coronavirus can live on many surfaces for hours or even days. If you touch one of these surfaces, 20+ seconds of washing with soap and water is the most effective step you can take to avoid catching COVID-19. This is important because:

  • Most people touch their eyes, nose, and mouth without even realizing it, allowing germs to get into the body and make us sick.
  • Germs from unwashed hands can be transferred to other objects, like handrails, table tops, or toys, and then transferred to another person’s hands.

How Should You Wash Your Hands?

Not all hand washing techniques will get you the same results. To stay safe in this time of coronavirus, start by wetting your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold). Then, turn off the tap, and apply soap. This allows you to soap up while soaping up by rubbing your hands together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

Make sure to scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice, or search Google for other songs that you like better to help keep time.

After your 20+ seconds of washing, it is time to rinse well under clean, running water. Note that the rinse comes after lathering – don’t wash your soap off too fast! Turning off the water while lathering helps with this.

Finally, dry your hands using a clean towel, or let them air dry.

Once your hands are clean, be careful what you touch! If you are in a public restroom, use a paper towel if you need to open the door to exit the room, and carefully dispose of the towel in a sanitary fashion.

For more information, check out the CDC’s comprehensive section on handwashing.

Is Hand Sanitizer as Effective as Soap and Water?

To prevent coronavirus, the best thing you can do is to wash with plain soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This is especially necessary after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing one’s nose.

If soap and water are not available, then the CDC recommends the use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Note that alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs. Soap and water is more versatile and effective. Soap is especially important when your hands are heavily soiled or greasy, or when you have come into contact with pesticides or heavy metals. (The use of antibacterial or antiseptic soaps is not helpful, since coronavirus is – you guessed it – a virus, not a bacteria.)

If your only choice is hand sanitizer, then you need to make sure to use the correct concentration with the proper technique. Any concentration less than 60% may be less effective on certain types of germs, and will only reduce the growth of germs rather than kill them.

When using hand sanitizer, apply the product to the palm of one hand (read the label to learn the correct amount) and rub the product all over the surfaces of your hands until your hands are dry. The alcohol in hand sanitizer works best when you rub hand sanitizer all over your hands, making sure to get between your fingers and on the back of your hands. Do not wipe or rinse off the hand sanitizer before it is dry.

Due to coronavirus, we have had a shortage of hand sanitizer in some places. Many people have resorted to making their own, but this should really be a last resort, as the wrong mix can render the product insufficient to help and/or it can damage the skin. Luckily, to address shortages, the FDA has issued guidelines that allow companies to temporarily prepare certain alcohol-based hand sanitizer products. As a result, you should be able to find options in your local stores or online.

One final warning – it is very important not to use cleaners or disinfectants meant for surfaces on your skin. These products may cause irritation, and should not be used on humans or animals.

Remember, 20+ seconds of washing with regular soap and water is always your best option. But when that option is not available, hand sanitizer is a great backup.

For more information, check out the CDC fact sheet on hand sanitizers.

Should I wear a face mask when I go out in public?

In order to help protect yourself and others, the CDC recommends that you wear a cloth face covering in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, like grocery stores and pharmacies. This is especially important in areas where there has been significant community-based transmission.

One of the big reasons for this is that the virus can be spread by people who do not know they are infected. Some people will never know (unless tested) as they can have the virus and be asymptomatic (never experiencing any symptoms). Others, who do get sick, could be transmitting the disease before they experience symptoms.

We know that when a person who has coronavirus comes in contact with someone who does not, they are least likely to transmit the disease if both people are wearing a face covering. We also know that some people are more susceptible to getting infected, and/or to becoming very sick due to the infection. Therefore, to help keep everyone safe (especially these most vulnerable members of our families and society) it is important for all of us to add this new accessory to our wardrobes.

What Kind of Face Covering is Best?

Due to shortages of surgical or N-95 respirators, it is critical that these medical supplies be used and distributed by medical providers or other first responders. Cloth coverings are the appropriate choice for everyday use.

While it is possible to buy both simple and fashionable coverings, you can easily make your own. Watch the U.S. Surgeon General demonstrate one option that just requires a bandana or similar piece of cloth.

Make sure that it fits comfortably, is secure, and uses multiple layers of fabric. You’ll also need to make sure you can breathe without restriction. It should be washed in a washing machine on a regular basis.

Check out the CDC’s page with more information on how to wear, wash, and make a face covering.