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Quick Dose: When Should I See a Doctor for Sunburn?

More than three million people in the United States suffer a serious sunburn every year.

Sunburn, the skin’s response to UV light, can be slow to develop, only revealing itself after the damage has been done. Once you notice sunburn, immediately seek shade or go indoors to prevent further damage.

Signs that your burns are significant include painful redness, peeling and blisters. For most, the pain can be lessened with a cold shower, cool compress and over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or aspirin. Moisturizers that contain aloe vera or soy can also help soothe sunburned skin. Remember to drink extra water to prevent dehydration. Pain should subside within a week.

Consider consulting your primary care physician or a board certified dermatologist if you exhibit any of the following symptoms:

  • The burn is accompanied by blisters that cover more than 20 percent of your body. Your physician can assess your burns to decide if additional treatment if warranted. Treatment could include medication for inflammation or medicated cream to assist with recovery.
  • The burn is accompanied by a high fever, chills or nausea. These could be signs of sun poisoning, which might require IV fluids to treat severe dehydration. You may also need steroids or other medication to alleviate pain.
  • Your skin shows signs of infection, such as swelling or pus, or blisters that turn yellow or red over time. Peeling your sunburned skin can expose the new skin underneath to germs. This could cause an infection that may require antibiotics.

Your physician can provide you with additional resources for a smooth recovery. You can also visit a Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care location near you. Remember, although one sunburn won’t give you skin cancer, increased sun exposure over time could increase your risk. Next time be sure to slather on the sunscreen and stick to shade in mid-day when the sun rays are strongest!

Lauren Taglia, MD, PhD, Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group, Dermatology

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Lauren Taglia, MD, PhD
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