Types of Sun Damage: Sunburn

As you take to a more outdoorsy lifestyle unprotected from the sun’s rays, the risk of sun damage to your skin also rises. Excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun causes an acute inflammation of the skin that is more commonly known as sunburn. Sunburn is actually a superficial, or first-degree, burn. However, the sun is not the only culprit behind sunburn; tanning beds, phototherapy lamps and arc lamps also emit UV radiation and can cause sunburns.

Understanding Sun Burn

The first effect of UV radiation on the skin is dilation of blood vessels, which is responsible for the characteristic reddening of the skin. Shortly thereafter, cells in the skin, called mast cells, release substances, such as histamine, serotonin and prostaglandins, that contribute to an inflammatory reaction. This is followed by an accumulation of white blood cells, called neutrophils and T lymphocytes, in the sunburned skin (which further fuels the inflammatory reaction). UV radiation also damages the DNA of cells in the epidermis. If DNA is irreparably damaged--which is usually the case--the cells undergo programmed cell death, a process known as apoptosis.

Sunburn is a very common skin condition, which you can have especially during the summer months when outdoor activities are more common and the sun is at its most intense. In general, if you are living near the equator or in higher altitudes, you are more at risk for sunburn. Since the skin pigment melanin shields the skin against harmful UV radiation, sunburn is more common and more severe if you have light skin.

Signs and Symptoms

After a recent sun exposure, the skin generally turns red after just 3 to 4 hours, and redness eventually peaks at 12 to 24 hours. Skin redness often blanches when pressure is applied. The sunburned area is warm, and characteristically very painful and tender to touch. Healing occurs 4 to 7 days after sun exposure, and is heralded by skin peeling, return of skin to its normal color and absence of pain.

In more severe burns, the skin can blister, and you can have fever and chills. These are signs that sunburn is already a partial-thickness, or second-degree, burn. Moreover, if a very extensive area of your body is sunburned, you are also at great risk for dehydration and secondary infections.


While painful, sunburn is rarely life threatening, and treatment is geared toward minimizing its symptoms. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and mefenamic acid, can ease the pain and inflammation. A soak in cool water or application of emollients like aloe vera can also provide temporary relief. Severe and extensive sunburns are deep burns and managed aggressively. Hospitalization may be necessary to provide adequate hydration and to dress the burns.

Prevention, however, remains the most important aspect of treatment. Make it a habit to apply sunblock whenever your activities involve any sun exposure. Use products with higher sun protection factor (SPF) ratings, because the degree of sun exposure rises, and then regularly reapply the product especially if you are swimming or sweating a lot. UV radiation can be transmitted through clothing, so sunburn may still occur even if you are clothed.

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