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A severely sunburned arm

A sunburn is a radiation burn that affects the epidermis and the dermis of the skin. A sunburn occurs when the skin is exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) rays. The ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays directly affect the skin by penetrating through different depths of the skin. Severe sunburns can lead to skin cancer in the future if many occur over time. Skin cancer occurs when the sun’s ultraviolet rays damage a person’s DNA. Sunburns can be very dangerous especially if chills and a high fever occur. In a mild case of a sunburn, symptoms include redness and soreness.

To protect the skin from the harmful ultraviolet rays, sunscreen is used to prevent sunburns. Sunscreen should be applied every two hours to receive full protection. The melanin in the skin determines the intensity of a person’s sunburn. The more melanin a person has the more protected their skin is against the sun’s radiation. If burned, aloe Vera, pain-killers, and soothing lotions can promote healing and provide comfort.[1]

Symptoms and dangers

A severe sunburn that is starting to form a blister

The symptoms of a sunburn include redness and pinkness, inflamed skin, pain, itchiness, swelling, blisters. Minor sunburns result in low degrees of redness over the burned area. In regards to severe sunburns, headaches, fevers and chills occur. Some severe sunburns can even cause hospitalization and medical treatment. When a person becomes exposed to the sun’s UV rays, any place on the body can burn. The longer the skin is exposed to sunlight, the more severe the sunburn becomes. Even when a person’s skin is covered by clothing, the UV rays can still come through to the skin. This can happen if the clothing is too loose or sheer. The eyes are one of the most sensitive places to receive a sunburn. Instead of inflammation, a sunburned eyeball will feel very coarse and painful. It may take a full 24 hours for the first signs of a sunburn to take full effect.[2] Thankfully sunburns are only temporary, but damage to skin cells remains a permanent effect. [3]

After being exposed to the sun and receiving a sunburn, pain worsens between 6 and 48 hours after the burn. Several days after a sunburn, peeling of the skin can occur. Along with a person’s body peeling the top layer of the burned skin, the new skin underneath may have a temporary irregular look. A bad sunburn will heal over the course of several days. Even though a sunburn is temporarily on a person’s skin there are long term side effects. Skin cancer is one of the results of a history of bad sunburns over time. The 3 main types of skin cancer are melanoma, basal-cell carcinoma and squamous-cell carcinoma. Skin cancer is very dangerous and each year there are over 5.4 million cases in the U.S alone. Ninety percent of all non-melanoma skin cancers result from exposure to UV rays.[4] Although a sunburn may not seem like a big deal in a current instance or situation, skin cancer effects so many people who chose not to care about their sun exposure.


Bottles of sunscreen that play a key role in blocking the sun's harmful UV rays.

The risk of a sunburn continues to be a risk even on sunless and cloudy days. UV rays are easily reflected by water, snow, ice and sand. Also, higher altitudes increase the intensity of the U.V rays. The time of day to avoid the sun also plays a factor in preventing a sun burn. Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. the sun is the highest in the sky and the rays are the strongest. Another way to prevent a sunburn is to limit the length of sun exposure and to find shady spot. For many people, avoiding the sun is impossible, so covering up the skin exposed to the sun is a good option. The wearing of tight and form fitting clothes will provide protection to the sun’s harmful UV rays. In addition to covering all limbs, wearing dark clothing absorbs the sunlight better than light colored clothes. The make and fabric of the clothing also must be taken into consideration because some materials have more protection than others. Purchasing UV protection clothing that is designed to prevent sunburns and protect the skin. Hats protect the head and scalp as well as the very sensitive eyes. In regards to eyes, sun glasses block the UV rays and are encouraged when outside. The denser the better when it comes to sunglasses.[5]

Sunscreen is the most common way to prevent a sunburn. Sunscreen absorbs and reflects the sun’s harmful UV rays and radiation. It is efficient and easy to apply. Using sunscreen frequently throughout the time of sun exposure is a good way to prevent a sunburn. Applying sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before sun exposure is encouraged for the sunscreen to completely absorb into the skin.[6] Also, using a generous amount of sunscreen every 2 hours will lower the chances of some areas not being protected. To have the maximum result of sunscreen, using a SPF of 30 or greater will increase the chance of preventing a sunburn. No matter what skin type a person is using a broad spectrum of at least 15 is a good idea. Another way to prevent a sunburn and skin cancer is to avoid indoor tanning. Indoor tanning is very dangerous to the skin and can increase the risk of skin cancer. Also, base tans do not necessary protect against sunburns.[7]


An aloe Vera plant that is commonly used to soothe a sunburn

The length of time spent exposed to the harmful UV rays will contribute to the severity of the sunburn. The severity of the sunburn will determine the right treatment for any specific sunburn. For mild sunburn redness, the application of aloe Vera will soothe the pain and will instigate healing. Moisturizing lotion can also soothe and rehydrate the sunburned skin. Drinking lots of fluids will also help to rehydrate the skin. Bathing in cool water or applying cooling water to the skin through a compress will assist in the swelling and irritation.[8] Over the counter painkillers can help with pain and intense swelling. Along with all these treatments, a person must make sure to avoid further sun exposure to prevent worsening the skin damage.

Most sunburns can be treated at home, but in some cases medical treatment is crucial. More serious sunburns can cause very painful blisters that can cover the body. Medical attention should be required when the sunburn causes a high fever intense pain and chills. An infection has occurred when there is pus leading from the blisters along with potential red streaks. It is crucial to see a doctor so that they can prescribe antibiotics and medical creams to help heal the severe sunburn.[9]


Sunburns are normally associated with the sun on a hot day. Sunburns do not occur due to the heat of the sun, but to the sun’s powerful radiation. A sunburn occurs when the skin is exposed to an overdose of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. UV is a form of radiation that the sun admits through the atmosphere. The wavelengths of UV radiation are too short to be seen by the naked human eye. There are two main types of UV radiation that are responsible for sunburns. Ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) are the two types of radiation that most directly affect the skin. UVA penetrates the skin further downward and accounts for 95 percent of the UV rays that affect the earth.[10] UVA rays are utilized in tanning beds to produce a sun tan. UVB rays account for more sunburns and only penetrates the epidermis of the skin. Both UVA and UVB rays play a role in the development of skin cancer.[11]

The amount of melanin in the skin dictates the amount of sunburns person receives and amount of protection that they need from the sun. Melanin is s dark pigment in the epidermis that makes up the color. The darker the skin a person has the more melanin it contains and the more protection they have from UV rays. People who live in an area where there is a large amount of sunlight will mostly likely develop a skin tan. A skin tan occurs due to the body’s production of melanin to protect their skin from the sun’s UV rays. Although the sun has a defense mechanism against the UV rays, most people do not make enough melanin to protect them against sunburns and damage.[12] The truth is that genetically only certain people can tan well while others with less melanin in their skin are at a high risk of sunburns and skin cancer later. On cloudy days, people do not feel obligated to wear sunscreen or protect their skin, but over 80 percent of UV rays go through the clouds and can cause sunburns. Theses sunburns caused by cloudy days are just a severe as ones obtained on sunny days. Also, snow, ice, and water can reflect the rays as well.


Common treatments for a sunburn.


  1. Jaliman, Debra. Sunburn WebMD. Web. March 19, 2017 last updated.
  2. Berman, Kevin. Sunburn Medline Plus. Web. March 5, 2017 last updated.
  3. Staff, Mayo Clinic. Symptoms Mayo Clinic. Web. March 5, 2017 last updated.
  4. Skin Cancer Facts and Statistics Skin Cancer Foundation. Web. March 5, 2017 last updated Unknown Author.
  5. Staff, Mayo Clinic. Prevention Mayo Clinic. Web. March 5, 2017 last updated.
  6. Sunscreen Wikipedia. Web. March 5, 2017 last updated. Unknown Author.
  7. Staff, Mayo Clinic. Prevention Mayo Clinic. Web. March 5, 2017 last updated.
  8. DerSarkissian, Carol. Sunburn Treatment WebMD. Web. March 19, 2017 last updated.
  9. Gibson, Lawrence. When might sunburn require medical attention? Mayo Clinic. Web. March 19, 2017 last updated.
  10. Epstein, John. UVA & UVB Skin Cancer Foundation. Web. March 19, 2017 last updated.
  11. Staff, Mayo Clinic. Causes Mayo Clinic. Web. March 19, 2017 last updated.
  12. Staff, Mayo Clinic. Causes Mayo Clinic. Web. March 19, 2017 last updated.