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How Serious Is Your Sunburn?

sunburned woman
July 18, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

One of the common drawbacks of too much sun exposure is the risk of sunburn. Frequently, my patients will ask after their long vacation in the sweltering sun: “Is my burn a first-, second- or third-degree burn, and what should I do to take care it?”

I usually begin by educating my patients briefly on the different types of burns and what to look out for.

Sunburns typically characterized as first-degree burns are limited to the most superficial layer of the skin. These burns may present with redness on the skin, slight tenderness to the touch and, on occasion, light peeling of the skin within 24 to 48 hours after injury.

Despite your best efforts to protect your skin, you’ve got a sunburn.What should you do to soothe the burn?

  • The first step is to get out of the sun!
  • Immediately apply a cool compress to the area. This will help contain the inflammation.
  • Do not place ice directly on the skin. Ice may cause further damage.
  • If there is flaking or raw areas, apply Neosporin or Bacitracin lightly to the area. Cover with a clean gauze bandage.
  • Cleanse the area daily with soap and water, monitor the burn daily and look for signs of progression.
  • Finally, to help the damaged skin regenerate, moisturize the sun-damaged skin with vitamin E cream or aloe vera after the initial injury has resolved.

On occasion, sunbathers may present with a second-degree burn, especially if they have fallen asleep in the direct sun (while unprotected) for prolonged periods. Second-degree burns are characterized by more extensive thermal damage. Your injury has penetrated beyond the upper layer of the skin (such as from a scald or flame burn). These burns may present with a fluid-filled blister, redness and extreme pain. Your initial treatment is similar to first-degree burn. However, it is wise to seek medical attention.Most sunburns (first-degree burns) will resolve or show significant signs of improvement within the first 2-5 days. If your burn does not improve within this time frame, you may have a deeper burn or second-degree burn.

Sunburns are rarely third-degree burns. These are characterized by full thickness thermal injury, damage to the top layer and deeper layers of the skin. If you suspect a third-degree burn, seek medical attention immediately. The source is usually scald, flame, chemical or electrical. Rarely is the sun the culprit.

Enjoy the sun, play safe and stay protected!

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