10 Dos and Don’ts to Treat Sunburn at Home—and When to Visit the Burn Center

by Taryn E. Travis, MD, Burn Surgery
July 21, 2021

Whether it’s the first day of summer or the end of a weekend beach getaway, nearly everyone has experienced the painful discoloration of a sunburn. But far fewer people know when, “Whoops, I forgot my sunscreen” should become, “I need to go to the doctor.”

The average sunburn behaves like a first-degree burn, meaning only the outer layer of the skin, the epidermis, has been damaged. Burns that reach deeper than the epidermis are at least a partial thickness burn, also known as a second-degree burn. These can often be recognized by blisters or breaks in the skin. If you experience a burn that reaches this depth, you should seek care from a doctor who specializes in burn treatment.

Experienced providers at the Burn Center at MedStar Washington Hospital Center—the only adult burn treatment center in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area—treat all types of burns 24/7, 365 days a year. We can quickly and accurately interpret the depth of your burn before providing treatment based on the location and extent of your burn, as well as any other medical conditions you might have.

Seek immediate care if you experience these symptoms after a sunburn:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headache

With a severe sunburn, you may be in danger of dehydration, especially as we more frequently experience record-high temperatures.

Without proper treatment of broken or blistered skin, risk increases for infection, scarring and permanent skin color changes. Other long-term risks of sunburn include skin cancer. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology has shared that experiencing five or more blistering sunburns between ages 15 and 20 increases one’s melanoma risk by 80% and non-melanoma skin cancer risk by 68%.

As we resume normal summertime activities amidst the pandemic, we must also reinstate good sun-safety and sunburn care habits. The next time you overdo it in the sun, use this list to find the best ways to treat sunburn at home, what not to do, and when to visit the Burn Center.

A severe #sunburn can cause not only #infection and permanent skin damage but also internal complications like #dehydration. Seeking professional help greatly decreases this risk: https://bit.ly/3BvSt38.

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Dos and don’ts.

Taking—and avoiding—specific actions as soon as you realize you have a sunburn can make a difference in how fast you heal. A quick internet search or conversation with a friend might tempt you to try different “hacks” using common items you likely have in your home, but many of these myths can actually harm your skin further.

Dos: Home remedies that can help sunburn.

  1. Run cool or room-temperature water over the burn to soothe the pain.
  2. Keep the skin clean using soap and water.
  3. Moisturize the burn area using non-dyed, non-perfumed lotions, such as Aquaphor or Aveeno.
  4. Take an over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen, at the first sign of sunburn to reduce pain and inflammation, as long as you don’t have any health reasons to not use these medications.
  5. Seek professional care if you think you have an infection or severe sunburn.

Don’ts: Never try these unhelpful treatments.

  1. Ice: This can lead to frostbite, converting one injury to another.
  2. Food products: Foods, beverages, or condiments such as mustard, ketchup, butter and honey will not do your skin any favors.
  3. Unusual chemicals: Such as gel from air fresheners, or rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. This will irritate your skin even more.
  4. Antibiotics or antibiotic ointments: Especially if you’ve never used these types of treatments before. If you put them on irritated skin, you can get a skin rash, which will worsen the burn.
  5. More sun: Don’t re-expose the burn to the sun while it’s healing.

How the Burn Center can help.

Our goal is to provide patients with wound care approaches that are as simple as possible. We often employ wound care regimens that allow dressings to be left in place for multiple days at a time to minimize the amount of care required by patients at home. If someone does have a regimen that needs to be performed more often, we can involve the MedStar Visiting Nurse Association to help.

Patients who have a bad sunburn in addition to medical conditions that make it harder to heal, such as diabetes, vascular insufficiency, or heart, lung, or kidney problems, can receive IV and nutrition support to promote healing, as well as pain medication. They may also need to stay in the hospital or get follow-up care in our outpatient clinic.

As part of the MedStar Health system, patients have streamlined access to a collaborative team of providers who will deliver all the care they need under one roof.

How to prevent sunburn.

After spending more time indoors than usual during the past year and a half, many people are a little out of practice when it comes to sun protection. Build better habits by following the tips below:

  • Use a mineral-based sunscreen in the 30 – 50 SPF range that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. This is just as important for people with darker skin tones, as they can also develop skin cancer as a result of long-term sun exposure.
  • Re-apply sunscreen every two hours. Most people don’t apply as much as they need.
  • Pay attention to sunscreen expiration dates; once you hit that date, replace it.
  • Don’t neglect the most commonly forgotten areas when applying sunscreen: your ears and neck, the tip of your nose, and the tops of your hands and feet.
  • Hats and sleeves go a long way in protecting your skin. Wear both as much as possible.
  • If you have diabetic neuropathy, which alters the sensations in your hands and feet, keep a close eye on your skin, as you won’t be able to rely on how it feels.
  • Be careful while walking on hot sand and pavement. People don’t typically put sunscreen on their palms or the bottoms of their feet, but you could damage your skin in less than a minute with hot contact.

Related reading: 7 simple ways to protect your skin in the sun.

People often avoid professional medical treatment for a sunburn because they’re embarrassed or think it’s not a big deal, but large surface-area burns or blisters are always worth seeking care for. We can provide the care you need and educate you on how to prevent complications moving forward.

Has your sunburn turned into a sun blister?

Our Burn Center specialists are here to help.

Call 202-644-9526 or Request an Appointment

Category: Healthy Living     Tags: burn preventionburnssunburn