Sunburn (Sun Poisoning)

Closeup of woman applying sunscreen to arm.Like most people, you may have been sunburned at least once. If so, you know the symptoms—red, hot, painful skin. Most sunburns are minor and go away in a few days. But sunburns can be serious. It’s important to know when to get medical care.

Risk factors

You are more likely to burn in the sun if you:

  • Have very fair skin.

  • Are exposed to sunlight reflected from snow, sand, or water.

  • Live near the equator or at high altitudes.

  • Are taking certain antibiotics, birth control pills, Accutane, or the herb St. John’s wort. Check with your pharmacist about other medications that can increase your sun sensitivity.

When to go to the emergency department (ED)

The symptoms of a sunburn may not appear until 6 to 12 hours after exposure. Mild redness and swelling can often be treated at home. Cool baths or compresses, along with aloe vera lotion, can help. Oral ibuprofen can help relieve pain, swelling, and inflammation. Go to a hospital emergency room if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Intense pain

  • Fever and chills

  • Severe blisters

  • Headache, confusion, or fainting

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Severe dehydration (fluid loss)

What to expect in the ED

The treatment you receive will depend on the severity of the sunburn:

  • You may be told to drink plenty of fluids and apply cool compresses or soak in cool water. You may also be given a cream to prevent infection.

  • For severe burns, you may be given pain medication. You may be given an oral steroid medication to take. Fluids and cool water soaks help relieve symptoms. In extreme cases, you may be admitted to the hospital burn unit.


Protect your skin from the sun

Long-term sun exposure may lead to wrinkling and skin cancer. To protect your skin:

  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when rays are strongest.

  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves in the sun.

  • Use a sunscreen even on cloudy days. Make sure it is at least SPF 30, broad spectrum, and water resistant.


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