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How to treat sunburn

While enjoying the great outdoors is a common part of our Australian lifestyle, it’s essential to recognise that the increased chance of sunburn can pose a very serious risk to your body. From immediate discomfort to the more severe long-term consequences of skin cancer and rapidly ageing skin, it’s important to understand the effects of sunburn so it can be appropriately remedied. That’s why we’ve created this guide, to help you recognise, treat, and, most importantly, prevent any sunburn you or someone you know may receive.

Why is sunburn dangerous?

When UV rays from the sun hit our skin, they can damage the skin’s surface. This damage can lead to what we know as sunburn.

The science behind this is straightforward but concerning. UV rays can alter the DNA in our skin cells, which causes different degrees of sunburn. Mild sunburn typically involves slight redness and some discomfort, while moderate sunburn can cause more intense redness and swelling. Severe sunburn, however, is a more serious condition where the skin blisters, and this can result in severe pain.

As well as causing immediate pain and discomfort, sunburn accelerates skin ageing and can result in peeling, itchy skin. Repeated or too much sun exposure that results in sunburn increases the risk of skin cancer — the most common type of cancer.

Immediate actions: First aid for sunburn

If you find yourself with a sunburn, the first thing you should do is give it the proper care and attention it requires to heal properly. This is especially important in cases of extreme sunburn. Treating your burn as soon as possible helps prevent further damage to your skin, and prevents more severe symptoms.

  • Start by cooling the affected area. You can do this with cold compresses or by taking a cool bath. This helps alleviate the heat and reduces pain and swelling.
  • Staying hydrated is also crucial. Sunburn draws fluid to the skin’s surface and away from the rest of the body. Drinking plenty of water helps prevent dehydration and assists in the healing process.
  • When it comes to treating your sunburn, be cautious about the products you use. Avoid petroleum jelly or creams with “caine” in their names, like benzocaine or lidocaine, as they can trap heat in your skin and cause further irritation.

As your sunburn heals, it’s important to treat any peeling skin gently. Remember that proper care will help you avoid skin irritation and further damage to the burn site. Too much abrasion or aggressive movement may prolong pain and significantly delay your burn’s healing process.

Home remedies and over-the-counter solutions

For a soothing home remedy, use aloe vera. A good quality aloe vera lotion or gel can act as a cooling agent and help your skin heal. It’s gentle and provides a protective, moisturising layer without trapping heat within your skin.

When shopping for other kinds of moisturisers, look for products that are free from alcohol and fragrances, as these can further dry out and irritate your skin. Body soaps that are unscented and made for sensitive skin are the best kinds to use if you need to clean the burn site.

Over-the-counter pain relief can be helpful in managing the discomfort that comes with sunburn. Ibuprofen or paracetamol are commonly used to reduce pain and swelling. However, be cautious with topical steroids like hydrocortisone. While they can reduce inflammation, they should only be used for mild sunburns and not on young skin or over large areas.

Recognising signs of severe sunburn

It’s crucial for us to recognise the signs of severe sunburn, as they often require medical attention. Severe sunburns can cause the body to lose fluids, leading to dehydration, and if the skin is broken, there’s a risk of infection. If you notice signs of either, it’s important you seek medical attention as soon as possible. Symptoms such as blisters on the skin, a high fever, or severe pain are also indicators of poor healing, and should be checked by a professional immediately.

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Long-term treatment and care

After a sunburn, your skin goes through a healing and regeneration process. During this time, it’s important to support your skin’s recovery.

Moisturising plays a key role here. Use gentle skincare products that hydrate and soothe the skin without causing further irritation. Products containing aloe vera or soy are often recommended. Also, be gentle with your skin; avoid picking at peeling skin or popping blisters, as this can lead to infection and slow down the healing process.

As for the long-term, be sure to monitor your skin for any changes or signs of damage. Sometimes, sunburn can cause more than just temporary discomfort; it can lead to long-term skin changes like dark spots, wrinkles, or even increase the risk of skin cancer.

Given these risks, regular skin checks are essential. They help in the early detection of any skin changes or abnormalities that might indicate skin damage or the early stages of skin cancer. If you notice any unusual changes in your skin, such as new or changing moles, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional as soon as possible.

Remember: the earlier skin cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat.

Children and sunburn

Children’s skin requires special attention when it comes to sunburn. Their skin is more delicate and vulnerable to UV damage than adult skin. As a result, sunburn in children can be more severe and the effects of UV exposure can be more damaging in the long run.

Preventing sunburn in children is key. Always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an appropriate SPF for children, and reapply it every two hours, or more often if they are swimming or sweating. Dressing children in sun-protective clothing, including hats and sunglasses, and encouraging playtime in the shade, especially during peak sun hours, can significantly reduce their risk of sunburn.

If your child does get sunburned, it’s important to treat the burn gently. Use cool compresses and soothing lotions like aloe vera to relieve discomfort. Remember to also keep your child well hydrated by giving them plenty of fluids, and if the sunburn is severe, or if you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to seek medical advice.

Although young skin heals faster, it’s important to remind children to be gentle and avoid picking or scratching at peeling skin to prevent further irritation.

Prevention is better than cure

Preventing sunburn is far better than treating it. By taking the right precautions, you can enjoy the sun safely.

We recommend choosing a sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) and applying it generously before sun exposure. More specifically, you should choose an SPF of either 30+ or 50+, as these sunscreens are the most effective in filtering out the harmful UVB rays of the sun. While there isn’t much difference between the amount of rays blocked by SPF 30+ and 50+ sun creams, to be on the safe side, we always recommend using 50+ for that little bit of extra sun protection.

An important thing to note is that sunscreen isn’t just for the beach or pool days. It should be part of your daily routine, especially if you live in an area that is prone to high UVB ratings. Remember that UVB rays are still present even on cloudy or overcast days, so using sunscreen when you leave the house, no matter the weather conditions, is an important part of keeping your skin protected and healthy for as long as possible.

Besides sunscreen, wearing protective clothing can significantly reduce the risk of sunburn. Hats, sunglasses, and clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating provide extra layers of protection.

Don’t forget — the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 AM and 4 PM, so plan your outdoor activities accordingly. Seeking shade during these peak sun hours can greatly reduce your sun exposure.

Let sun safety be our shared responsibility

From immediate relief tips to recognising when you might need professional help, in this article we’ve shared some of our best methods on what you can do to treat sunburn. It’s always important to remember, however, that the damage caused by sunburn can accumulate over time, which increases the risk of skin cancer developing and rapidly ageing skin. That’s why it’s essential to make regular skin checks part of your yearly routine.

At On Point Skin Cancer Clinic, we care about your health and ensuring you live a long life free of the damaging effects of skin cancer. Whether you have concerns about a recent sunburn, changes in your skin, or are simply wanting a professional skin check, we’re here to provide you with the care you need. Our friendly team is always ready to support you, every step of the way. 

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Proactive skin care is the best defence against the sun. Visit our blog for more resources, and book your next skin checkup with us today.

Together, let’s keep your skin healthy and protected.

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