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Inflammation of the skin caused by overexposure to the sun.


Sunburn is caused by exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun. There are two types of ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and can cause melanoma in susceptible people. UVB rays, which don't penetrate as deeply, cause sunburn and wrinkling. Most UVB rays are absorbed by sunscreens, but only about half the UVA rays are absorbed.
Skin cancer from sun overexposure is a serious health problem in the United States, affecting almost a million Americans each year. One out of 87 will develop malignant melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, and 7,300 of them will die each year.
Fair-skinned people are most susceptible to sunburn, because their skin produces only small amounts of the protective pigment called melanin. People trying to get a tan too quickly in strong sunlight are also more vulnerable to sunburn. While they have a lower risk, even the darkest-skinned people can get skin cancer.
Repeated sun overexposure and burning can prematurely age the skin, causing yellowish, wrinkled skin. Overexposure can increase the risk of skin cancer, especially a serious burn in childhood.

Causes and symptoms

The ultraviolet rays in sunlight destroy cells in the outer layer of the skin, damaging tiny blood vessels underneath. When the skin is burned, the blood vessels dilate and leak fluid. Cells stop making protein. Their DNA is damaged by the ultraviolet rays. Repeated DNA damage can lead to cancer.
When the sun burns the skin, it triggers immune defenses which identify the burned skin as foreign. At the same time, the sun transforms a substance on the skin which interferes with this immune response. While this substance keeps the immune system from attacking a person's own skin, it also means that any malignant cells in the skin will be able to grow freely.
Sunburn causes skin to turn red and blister. Several days later, the dead skin cells peel off. In severe cases, the burn may occur with sunstroke (vomiting, fever and collapse).


Visual inspection and a history of exposure to the sun.


Aspirin can ease pain and inflammation. Tender skin should be protected against the sun until it has healed. In addition, apply:
  • calamine lotion
  • sunburn cream or spray
  • cool tap water compress
  • colloidal oatmeal (Aveeno) baths
  • dusting powder to reduce chafing
People who are severely sunburned should see a doctor, who may prescribe corticosteroid cream to speed healing.

Alternative treatment

Over-the-counter preparations containing aloe (Aloe barbadensis) are an effective treatment for sunburn, easing pain and inflammation while also relieving dryness of the skin. A variety of topical herbal remedies applied as lotions, poltices, or compresses may also help relieve the effects of sunburn. Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is one of the most frequently recommended to reduce inflammation.


Moderately burned skin should heal within a week. While the skin will heal after a sunburn, the risk of skin cancer increases with exposure and subsequent burns. Even one bad burn in childhood carries an increased risk of skin cancer.


Everyone from age six months on should use a water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protective factor (SPF) of at least 15. Apply at least an ounce 15-30 minutes before going outside. It should be reapplied every two hours (more often after swimming). Babies should be kept completely out of the sun for the first six months of life, because their skin is thinner than older children. Sunscreens have not been approved for infants.

Key terms

Malignant melanoma — The most deadly of the three types of skin cancer.
Sunscreen — Products which block the damaging rays of the sun. Good sunscreens contain either para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) or benzophenone, or both. Sunscreen protection factors range from 2-45.
In addition, people should:
  • limit sun exposure to 15 minutes the first day, even if the weather is hazy, slowly increasing exposure daily
  • reapply sunscreen every two hours (more often if sweating or swimming)
  • reapply waterproof sunscreen after swimming more than 80 minutes, after toweling off, or after perspiring heavily
  • avoid the sun between 10 A.M. and 3 P.M.
  • use waterproof sunscreen on legs and feet, since the sun can burn even through water
  • wear an opaque shirt in water, because reflected rays are intensified
If using a sunscreen under SPF 15, simply applying more of the same SPF won't prolong allowed time in the sun. Instead, patients should use a higher SPF in order to lengthen exposure safely. A billed cap protects 70% of the face; a wide-brimmed hat is better. People at very high risk for skin cancer can wear clothing that blocks almost all UV rays, but most people can simply wear white cotton summer-weight clothing with a tight weave.



Tyler, Varro. "Aloe: Nature's Skin Soother." Prevention Magazine April 1, 1998: 94-96.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


inflammation of the skin (an actual burn) caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays of the sun. Depending on how severe the burn is, the skin may simply redden or it may become blistered and sore—a second-degree burn. In extreme cases there may be fever.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


Erythema with or without blistering caused by exposure to critical amounts of ultraviolet light, usually within the range of 260-320 nm in sunlight (UVB).
Synonym(s): erythema solare
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


Inflammation or blistering of the skin caused by overexposure to direct sunlight.
tr. & intr.v. sun·burned or sun·burnt (-bûrnt′), sun·burning, sun·burns
To affect or be affected with sunburn.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


Erythema with or without blistering caused by exposure to critical amounts of ultraviolet light, usually within the range of 260-320 nm in sunlight (UVB).
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


The damaging effect of the ultraviolet component of sunlight on the skin. This varies from minor reddening to severe, disabling blistering.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005

Patient discussion about sunburn

Q. Itches on hands when i go out in sun When go out and when sun rays fall on my hand at the end of the day it starts itching bady and it becoms sowlen. Can any one tell reason for this and a solution.

A. i don't use any lotion or creams. It happens only on my hands and only when sun rays fall on my hands. And small rashes also comes.

Q. Can you get a serious burn injury from the sun? I went to the swimming pool today and i got burned. It looks like some one spilled boiling water all over my back.

A. Yes you can.
not only that the sun exposure is a risk factor for skin cancer, sun burn can be very painful.
to ease the pain you can rub the burned area with cold yogurt.
sounds strange but worked for me :)

Q. what does a sun block cream do? and what are a UV rays?

A. It blocks out harmful Ultra violet rays from the skin as the previous entries have related; however it can also block your ability to produce vitamin D. If you live in a northerly area or one that receives limited sunlight, its recommended to get at least 15 minutes of sun a day (this is probably best done with minimal sunblock) and according to personnal sun sensitivity. Another thing to keep in mind is that sunblock works best if applied 20 minutes before sun exposure.

More discussions about sunburn
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References in periodicals archive ?
Giving example about younger patients, Bowe said, "A lot of these sunburn tattoos are being done by kids.
Oatmeal is a great way to keep your skin moisturized while your sunburn heals.
The Skin Cancer Foundation says a person's risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had five or more sunburns. Use protection, stay hydrated and play it smart to enjoy summer to the fullest.
"We are seeing the most severe cases here, but there will also be a lot of people with sunburn who are being managed by their GP, and who don't get referred to us."
Among the 15,992 sun-sensitive individuals, the highest likelihood of sunburn (62.4 percent) was reported for those who used only sunscreen.
"UV rays, which cause sunburn, tend to reach their peak between the hours of 11am and 3pm; this is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky.
"Lippman excels in the minutiae of trouble--insurance scams, sketchy arson investigations, getting paid in cash--and Sunburn, after a slow first 50 pages, is one of her most compulsive books, an atmospheric two-hander worthy of Raymond Chandler or Alfred Hitchcock." CHARLES FINCH
A PUPIL who suffered severe sunburn on a school trip abroad had to endure a 36-hour bus journey back to Scotland.
This incident throws light on the extent to which UV rays could harm our body. Exposure to UV rays from the sun could lead to sunburn, premature skin aging, skin damage, and skin cancer.
ISLAMABAD -- High doses of vitamin D taken one hour after sunburn significantly reduce skin redness, inflammation and swelling,a study said.
SUNSEEKERS could soon be popping vitamin D pills to soothe their sunburn after scientists found it can repair skin.
THE number of people attending A&E with sunburn soared after a scorching weekend.