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Person sitting on the beach with deeply sunburnt shoulders.
Person sitting on the beach with deeply sunburnt shoulders.

When Should I See a Physician for Sunburn?

Overexposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays is the leading cause of skin cancer.

Sunburn, the skin’s response to ultraviolet (UV) light, can be slow to develop, only revealing itself after the damage has been done. People with darker skin may not notice any redness but may notice other symptoms like warm skin and itchiness. 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,” says Lauren Taglia, MD, PhD, a dermatologist at Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group. “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.”

Dr. Taglia says you should consider consulting your primary care physician or a dermatologist if you exhibit any of the following symptoms:

  • The burn is accompanied by blisters that cover more than 20% of your body. Your physician can assess your burns to decide if you need more treatment. Treatment could include medication for inflammation or medicated cream to help your skin recover.
  • The burn is accompanied by a high fever, chills or nausea. These could be signs of sun poisoning (a severe case of sunburn). If you have this, you might need IV (into the vein) 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 give you more resources for a smooth recovery. You can also visit a Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care location near you.

Resist the Urge to Sunbathe

Because the sun’s rays can be enticing, more than one out of every three Americans reports getting sunburned each year. While the warmth of the sun may feel good, remember that a sunburn is a direct result of overexposure to UV rays, which is the leading cause of skin cancer. Next time the sun’s out, be sure to slather on the sunscreen and stick to shade in mid-day when the sun rays are strongest!