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Sunburn and Other Sun Reactions of the Skin

The sun produces invisible rays called ultraviolet-A (UVA) or ultraviolet-B (UVB) that can damage the skin. Too much sun can cause sunburn, skin texture changes, and skin cancers. Rashes also can be attributed to sunlight. Even on cloudy days, UV radiation reaches the earth and can cause skin damage.

Sunburn and Your Skin

Sunburn is a condition that occurs when the amount of exposure to the sun or another ultraviolet light source exceeds the ability of the body's protective pigment (melanin) to protect the skin.

Symptoms of sunburn include painful, reddened skin; however, sunburn may not be immediately apparent. By the time the skin starts to become painful and red, the damage has been done. Severe sunburn may result in swelling and blisters. People who are severely sunburned may develop a fever, chills, and/or weakness. In rare cases, people with sunburn can go into shock.

Several days after sunburn, people with naturally fair skin may have peeling in the burned areas. Some itching may occur and the peeled areas are even more sensitive to sunburn for several weeks.

Susceptibility to sunburns is increased in people with:

  • Fair skin
  • Light-colored hair
  • People using certain medications that increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunburn, such as NSAIDs (ibuprofen and naproxen, for example), quinolones, tetracyclines, psoralens, thiazides, furosemide, amiodarone, and the phenothiazines.

 

Sunburn Treatments

To treat -- or ease the discomfort of -- sunburn:

  • Apply a cold compress to the affected area(s).
  • Take aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol) immediately after exposure to the sun to relieve sunburn discomfort and inflammation.
  • Apply a cooling gel or ointment containing aloe vera to the sunburned area or areas.
  • Avoid further sun exposure until the discomfort resolves.

In cases of severe sunburn or sunstroke, see your doctor immediately.

Photosensitivity

Most people's skin will burn if there is enough exposure to ultraviolet radiation. However, some people burn particularly easily or develop exaggerated skin reactions to sunlight. This condition is called photosensitivity. People often call this a sun allergy.

People with photosensitivity have an immunological response to light -- most often sunlight. They can break out in a rash when exposed to sunlight. The amount of exposure required to cause a reaction varies from person to person. Some people with photosensitivity are also affected by indoor fluorescent lighting.

Photosensitivity has been linked to:

  • Contact with chemicals, fragrances, or plants
  • Medicines (including sulfonamides, tetracycline, and thiazide diuretics) that are taken internally
  • Herbs including St. John's wort
  • Autoimmune diseases such as lupus erythematosus
  • Porphyria, a metabolic disorder that is sometimes hereditary

Symptoms of photosensitivity

Symptoms of photosensitivity may include a pink or red skin rash with blotchy blisters, scaly patches, or raised spots on areas directly exposed to the sun. Itching and burning may occur and the rash may last for several days. In some people, the reaction to sunlight gradually becomes less with subsequent exposures.

Photosensitivity treatments

Some types of photosensitivity may respond to specific treatments such as oral beta-carotene, steroids, or other medications.

WebMD Medical Reference

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