4 Ways to Treat a Painful Sunburn

In a perfect world, you would not need to use the sunburn treatment information listed in this article, because you would never get burned. But the reality is you'll likely get sunburned at some point, so it’s important you know how to treat it to limit damage and discomfort to your skin.

It goes without saying that repeatedly burning your skin will damage it beyond the temporary redness, swelling, and peeling sunburn causes. Too much exposure to ultraviolet light can cause long-term damage to your skin and increase your chance of getting skin cancer – the most common form of cancer in the U.S.

Treating a Sunburn

When you first notice your skin is burned, get out of the sun. It sounds obvious but many people stay in the sun and let their skin continue to burn. If you don’t want to go indoors, find shade, sit underneath an umbrella, or put on protective clothing such as a hat or long sleeves.

Once you’re indoors, treat your sunburn right away to limit the pain. Depending how severe your burn is, you may or may not need to use all of the treatment options below.

1. Place a cool, damp cloth on the burn or take a cool bath or shower. Cooling down your skin can pull some of the heat out of it. After a bath or shower, let your skin air dry or gently pat it down – avoid rubbing it. Immediately apply a moisturizer. Continue to cool your skin a few times daily for 15-20 minutes until it feels better.

2. Apply a soothing and moisturizing cream or lotion. Products with aloe vera or soy are good options. Continue applying it until the sunburn fully heals. The American Academy of Dermatology offers these tips about using creams and lotions:

  • Avoid petroleum jelly or other ointments that completely block the skin from getting air and that trap heat in.
  • Skip products with benzocaine or lidocaine that can irritate the skin – especially in children.
  • Use over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointments to reduce pain and itching on bothersome areas if needed.

3. Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever. OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin, and naproxen can give you relief from pain, redness, and swelling.  Whichever medication you choose, follow the instructions.

4. Stay hydrated. As burns heal, they may pull fluid from the rest of your body. Because of this, it’s important to drink extra water. Be especially careful if your child gets sunburned. They’re even more likely to get dehydrated after a sunburn.

As your skin starts to heal, take extra care of it. This means staying out of the sun until the redness and pain goes away, wearing loose, protective clothing, and avoiding heavily scented skin products or sprays. And despite the urge you get, don’t pick, peel, or rub the burned area, especially if it’s blistered.

Most of the time a sunburn will not require medical attention. But if you develop symptoms like chills, extreme fatigue, fever, nausea, skin discoloration, or blistering from a burn that covers a large part of your body, such as your back or arm, seek medical attention.

Meet the Author

Mandi L. Maronn, MD is a Dermatologist at Aurora Health Center in Brookfield, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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