First Aid for a Sunburn
The sun is out and so are you! When the weather gets nice, we all head outside, enjoy the beautiful temperatures, and soak in those rays. The problem with this lovely season is that the sun is hot… of course it is! It is the reason for the season! But, for this reason we need to be extra cautious to ensure we do not harm our skin. No matter how hard we try to remember to apply sunscreen (and reapply afterwards), we can find ourselves distracted and burnt. The question becomes, do you know how to treat a sunburn? Know first aid for a sunburn so that you can help yourself and others this summer.
What is a Sunburn?
Before we explain how to treat a sunburn, it is helpful to understand what a sunburn actually is. Although we mostly associate red skin with these burns, there is actually more going on behind the colour change than we realize. When our skin turns colour from exposure to the sun, it is actually our skin reacting to the UV radiation. Even a light tan (something that many people desire) is our skin becoming damaged by the harsh light. The DNA of your skin cells is damaged and a pigment called melanin – also known as a ‘tan’ – is produced. This discolouration is your body’s defense mechanism, trying to protect itself from further damage.
As explained on bioelements.com, “the redness associated with sunburns is caused by extra blood in the capillaries – if you press on sunburned skin it will turn white and then return to red as the capillaries refill.” What we wave off as ‘no big deal’ or as ‘a beautiful sun-kissed glow’ is actually your skin warning you that it is being harmed! Additionally, the redness experienced and the pain is your body trying to heal itself. It is important to be aware that any type of exposure to the sun can cause a sunburn, ranging from mild (tan) to extreme (sun poisoning). Be aware of the signs and symptoms of problematic sunburns. These symptoms include:
- Redness of the skin
- Skin is sensitive to the touch
- Blistering or peeling develops in the days following the initial burn
First Aid for Sunburn
If you do get a sunburn, there are a few ways you can help to relieve the pain and treat it from becoming worse. First and foremost, be sure that you get out of the sun once you realize your skin is burnt. This will prevent further or more severe burning. Then, take action to reduce the temperature of your skin. Use the following first aid treatments:
- Cool the skin down by applying a cold cloth for 10 minutes or taking a cool shower (be sure it is not freezing water – you don’t want to shiver)
- Apply calamine lotion or Aloe Vera gel to soothe and keep the skin cooled
- Drink water to stay hydrated over the next 48 hours (and forever after)
- Use pain medication (such as ibuprofen or Advil) if there is continuous pain
Sometimes the sunburn will be severe and immediate blistering will occur. If you experience this or other symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, headaches, or increased heart rate, seek immediate medical attention! The burn has become dangerous and it now requires the assistance of a medical professional.
How to Prevent a Sunburn
Sunburns are one of the most common side-effects of spending time in the sun, but they are preventable! When heading outdoors be sure to do the following to reduce the chances of getting sunburnt!
- Wear appropriate clothing (lightweight clothing that covers the skin)
- Apply sunscreen with an appropriate SPF (dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 – blocking roughly 97% of the sun’s rays)
- Re-apply sunscreen after time has elapsed (re-apply every 2 hours or every hour if you are sweating or in the water)
- Wear a hat to protect your face
- Stay in the shade when possible
- Do not use a base tans or tanning oil products when going out into the sun
Remember that the more exposure your skin gets to direct UV radiation, the more dangerous it can become. Remember, your skin is an organ – how would your other organs feel sunburned?
Other Consequences of the Heat
A sunburn is not the only thing we can suffer from in the summer months. Another serious concern is heatstroke. This occurs when a person has been in the hot weather too long, is dehydrated, is wearing improper clothing, or has been exercising in the heat. The symptoms of heat stroke are: a raised body temperature, hot and dry skin (no sweating), headaches, disorientation, nausea, reddened skin (similar to a sunburn), and an increased heart rate. It is critical that as soon as you recognize the signs of heat stroke, that immediate attention is sought out. Call 911, get the person out of the sun, cool them down, and offer them cool water to drink while you wait for a medical team to arrive.
As time goes on and we continue to expose ourselves to the sun’s rays over the years, there can be long-term, serious results. Continuous contact to the sun can eventually lead to skin cancer. According to the Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation, “One in every three cancers diagnosed worldwide is skin cancer, 80-90% of which are caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation.” Just as sunburns are preventable, so is skin cancer! Take care to protect your skin when heading outdoors, limit direct sun exposure, avoid burning, do not sun tan, and keep a watchful eye on your skin. If you see any discolouration or odd textures on the skin (especially on areas such as moles) be sure to contact your doctor to evaluate the area further.
Protect your skin this summer and ensure that you do everything you can to prevent sunburns and further sun damage. And if sun damage does occur, take action to treat it with care! Enjoy the outdoors while keeping your skin healthy!