Sunburn is a form of radiation injury occurring after prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation especially from the sun. The skin becomes red, painful and hot to touch and usually it takes several days or longer to disappear. Exposure to the sun and resulting sunburn increases the chance of infections. It also accelerates the aging process causing appearance of early wrinkles, rough skin, appearance of freckles, macules and even certain type of skin cancers are likely to occur following over-exposure to the sun.

The use of sunscreen to protect from sunburn is quite helpful. Application of steroid ointments and different painkillers like NSAIDs are used to treat the condition. Although sunburn is a common skin condition, particularly of those who enjoy outdoor activities, the danger of the development of melanoma in recent years should serve as a deterrent of excessive sun exposure without sunscreens.


Common symptoms of sunburn include:

  • Pink to red skin with swelling or fluid-filled blisters which may rupture eventually releasing clear fluid.
  • Pain or burning sensation of the skin.
  • Excessively warm or hot kin.
  • Headache.
  • Fever.
  • Generalized body pain may be seen in severe sunburn.

Sunburn can occur following a short exposure to sunlight as short as 15 minutes or so. It takes seconds to develop following exposure to non-shielded welding arcs or other sources of ultraviolet radiation, although immediately there may be no apparent symptoms. Intense sun exposure may lead to number of complications like :

  • Increased chance of bacterial infection sof the skin due to rupture of the fluid filled blisters leading to intense pain and appearance of pus-filled pustules.
  • Repeated sunburn may accelerate the aging process of the skin by photo-aging. The common mechanisms are weakening of the elastic tissue thereby accelerating loss of elasticity of the skin.

Within few days of sunburn the body starts to heal by itself by replacing the damaged skin cells with new cells and peeling of the damaged upper layer of the skin. Therefore the skin may have temporary uneven coloring during the healing process. Usually it may take days to complete the healing process although severity of the burn determines the actual time required.


Sunburns are caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays which are not visible to the human eye. There are three types of ultraviolet rays A, B and C depending upon the wavelength, of which only A and B ray reach the earth. Certain tanning lights also use ultraviolet radiation for tanning. Following exposure to ultraviolet radiation the skin starts producing the melanin, the coloring pigment of the skin, in an accelerated way to protect the deeper layers of the skin. This increased melanin leads to the “tanned” appearance.

The amount of melanin produced by the body following exposure to sunburn depends upon the genetic make up of the person and has a limit, beyond which sunburn occurs. Sunburn can occur in cloudy days as the ultraviolet rays can easily penetrate the clouds. It is now known that repeated episodes of sunburn can significantly increase the chance of certain skin cancers like melanoma.


Mild sunburn will quickly resolve on its own within a short period of time although patients may experiencing discomfort and peeling of the skin. Painkillers like NSAIDs given orally or topically help to reduce the pain and severe sunburn cases require steroid ointments. Sunscreens applied before sun exposure helps to prevent sunburn.

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