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Here’s Why Sunburns Are So Dangerous and How You Can Protect Yourself

When you’re enjoying the outdoors, it can be easy to forget to protect your skin. According to the National Cancer Institute, almost 30% of adults don’t protect themselves from the sun, and approximately 30% of adults get sunburned each year. But sun protection is essential. You could develop skin damage in as little as 15 minutes of sun exposure.

You need to protect yourself and your family wherever you are. “I have seen many vacations cut short by someone getting a severe sunburn,” said Jasjot Johar, MD, medical director of the emergency department at Banner McKee Medical Center in Loveland, CO. “When you invest your time and spend your money to go on vacation, you don’t want that to be ruined because someone didn’t apply sunscreen and developed painful blistering.”

Sunburns have long-term health risks, too. “With too much sun exposure, you risk premature skin aging and some skin cancers, including melanoma. Some studies have also found that exposure to UV radiation from the sun could cause cataracts,” Dr. Johar said. Even one sunburn increases your risk of skin cancer later in life, and multiple sunburns are exponentially worse.

How to protect your skin from the sun’s rays

Of course, staying out of the sun keeps your skin protected. But you probably don’t want to stay indoors all the time. So when you’re outdoors, you want to create a barrier between your skin and the sun. A wide-brimmed hat and UV-resistant or protective clothing can help. And you should stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and seek shade as much as possible.

When you’re at the beach or pool, it’s tough to avoid the sun, so you need to apply broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Apply it at least 15 minutes before you’re exposed to the sun and reapply it every two hours, and after toweling off if you’ve been in the water. Dr. Johar recommends reapplying sunscreen every hour if you’re sweating or spending time in the water.

Sunscreen reduces your risk of sunburn but doesn’t eliminate it. So stay in the shade when possible. And be especially careful in situations where you might not be as aware of the risk of sunburn. You still need sunscreen on cloudy days to prevent sunburn since clouds don’t block all of the sun’s UV radiation. And water, sand and snow can reflect the sun’s rays as well. “Snow can reflect up to 90%of UV radiation, essentially doubling your exposure,” Dr. Johar said.

If you take certain medications, you can be more susceptible to sunburn. Your risk is higher if you take:

  • Many antibiotics, including tetracycline or ciprofloxacin
  • Many common blood pressure medicines, including captopril, diltiazem and nifedipine
  • Some antidepressants
  • Some common medicines for diabetes such as glipizide and glyburide
  • Lasix (furosemide)
  • Hydrochlorothiazide

This list doesn’t include all medications that could cause sun sensitivity. If you’re not sure about your medication, talk to your doctor. “The increased sensitivity doesn’t mean you cannot go out in the sun if you’re taking these medications,” Dr. Johar said. “You just need to be aware and take extra precautions.”

Sunscreen is crucial for children, who have double the risk of sunburn as adults. “We are not sure if that’s because of differences in their skin or the fact that children are not as aware of prevention. As a parent, it’s crucial to keep an eye on your children to make sure that they regularly and appropriately use sunscreen,” Dr. Johar said. For babies under 6 months old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding the sun and using clothing, not sunscreen, for protection.

How you can treat a sunburn

Maybe, despite your best efforts, you spent too much time in the sun, and you got a sunburn. If you’re still outdoors, move into the shade. Over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen or naproxen can help in the first 24 hours. Cold compresses, aloe-based lotions and sprays or lotions that contain local anesthetic can reduce discomfort. And you can drink plenty of water to help prevent dehydration.

Dr. Johar said in the past, people tried treating sunburns with steroids or prescription-strength medicine. But they aren’t helpful and may mask complications.

With a severe sunburn, you could develop blisters. Cover them and protect them, don’t pop them. If you have a lot of blisters, you may need an antibiotic ointment to help prevent infection.

A severe sunburn also puts you at risk for dehydration and heatstroke. “If you’re feeling dehydrated or cannot control pain and you’re developing other symptoms such as vomiting, fainting or confusion, it’s important to seek medical attention,” Dr. Johar said.

The bottom line

It’s essential to protect your skin from sun exposure. Sunburns are painful and can lead to sun damage and serious long-term health problems. If you would like to talk to a dermatologist about keeping your skin safe, Banner Health can help.

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