Even if you regularly apply sunscreen before going outdoors and wear protective clothing, all it takes is a little too much time before reapplication or one day of forgetting to wear sunscreen to wind up with a nasty sunburn. The signs of a sunburn will be evident before the damage fully reveals itself, as the burn won’t likely sting, hurt, or peel until later. That means that a little redness now could be much more painful in a couple hours. If you have a more serious sunburn, the pain and swelling may keep you from sitting or lying down comfortably, and it could have you feeling extra tired and worn down after a day in the sun. When a sunburn becomes so painful, you might wonder if you need to see a doctor to treat your skin.
Signs of Severe Damage
While most sunburns can be treated with at-home care, it is necessary to see a doctor if the burn is more severe. Like any severe burns, excessive sunburn can cause damage to the deeper layers of the skin and dramatically raise the risk of infection, due to open sores and blisters. Let’s look at some signs you should bring to the attention of a doctor if you have a sunburn:
Blisters – Small blisters are no need for alarm—though they do indicate that you’ve gotten more severe sun damage and should take extra steps to stay covered until the skin heals. When you have more than 20% coverage of blisters, however, you will want to head to an urgent care facility or ER for burn treatment.
Chills or fever – Chills or a high fever, especially in children affected by sunburns, can be a sign of overexposure and heat illness, and they might also indicate infection. The body will raise its temperature to fight off infection, so a fever accompanied by open blisters should not be left to chance without medical care.
Wooziness – Dizziness and wooziness are signs that a sunburn is more serious and that the sun has taken its toll.
First Aid for Your Sunburn
One mistake that people often make is assuming that once a burn shows up, the damage is done, so it’s safe to stay out in the sun. The truth is that a sunburn will continue getting worse as long as you remain exposed. In fact, damage may accelerate, because the skin has already sustained harm. If possible, get out of the sun as soon as you see any redness or tenderness develop. If you cannot retreat indoors or to the shade, put on more sunscreen and cover up with a hat and more clothing.
You may notice that a sunburn continues to feel worse even after you get out of the sun. Cooling the skin down with a cool shower or bath can offer some instant relief, and over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen and Tylenol will reduce swelling and pain over a longer period. After a shower, apply some aloe or soothing lotion—those containing oatmeal can further reduce redness and irritation on the skin.
What’s the Damage?
Even a very painful sunburn will feel mostly better within a week or so, which might lead you to wonder if a sunburn is even that bad. What you must consider is the lingering after effects of sun damage, which can include cell damage that leads to premature aging, skin cancer, and a rough, leathery appearance of the skin later in life. One sunburn is not likely to leave a substantial mark in the long-term, but repeated damage can have lifelong effects.
If you notice signs of severe sun damage on your skin, or you aren’t sure whether a trip to the hospital is necessary, MeMD is there for you. We can pair you with a board certified medical provider who can perform an online medical consultation, and can evaluate you and help you find relief from the comfort of home.