Sunburn: Ouch! How to avoid, treat it

Most sunburns can be treated at home, but if you also have chills, headache or a fever — or blisters covering a large part of your body — it’s important to seek medical attention

One bad sunburn is all it takes to ruin a summer vacation.

But that painful sunburn can also have effects that last long after your vacation is over. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles the risk of developing melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, later in life. Getting five or more sunburns at any age also raises that risk.

Although most cases of sunburn can be treated at home, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends seeking immediate medical attention for blisters covering a large area of the body, or if a sunburn is accompanied by chills, headache or a fever.

If you’re on any medication that causes increased sensitivity to the sun, be sure to take extra precautions outdoors.

Dr. Lotika Singh, a dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group, offered some tips on sunburn prevention and treatment. Singh sees patients in Yonkers and Manhattan.

When you get sunburned, is the sun actually burning your skin?

It’s essentially killing off your skin cells, keratinocytes. That’s why you get the peeling. The dead skin peels off when new skin resurfaces.

If you get a bad sunburn, can it lead to other forms of skin cancer besides melanoma?

For non-melanoma skin cancers, we say 20 years from now is when when you’ll start to see skin cancers or pre-cancers at the site where you had the sunburn.

The American Academy of Dermatology says not to use benzocaine or other products with “-caine” ingredients to treat a sunburn. What do you recommend instead?

We suggest supportive treatment for sunburn: ice packs, keeping cool. Sometimes pain medication will help, like Advil or aspirin. If it’s really intense, I’ll give patients oral steroids if I catch it in the first 72 hours. That calms down all the inflammation. If it’s a milder sunburn, you can use a topical steroid, or over-the-counter cortisone cream. And aloe vera. Liberal use of emollients can help.

Is it OK to spread hydrocortisone cream all over a big area of skin?

Yes. You can’t use it for a long period of time, though. A couple of days is fine.

What should you do about blisters?

You want to be very gentle with your skin when it’s blistered. Don’t peel the skin.

What should you look for in a sunscreen?

You want to look for something that’s broad spectrum with an SPF of at least 30.

Why do you favor sunscreens with physical blocking agents, like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide?

They’re less likely to cause any sort of allergic reaction. They’re more tolerable. I’ve been seeing a lot of patients who get a photoallergy from sunscreen. They’ll use a sunscreen for the first time and they’ll actually break out.

Where do people often get sunburned?

The ears. I always recommend a hat. You’re supposed to wear a four-inch-brim hat and lots of sunscreen: a teaspoon on your face. I don’t think anyone does that. Apply suncreen (to your face and body) every two hours. People forget that when they’re outdoors and they’re sweating a lot, the sunscreen comes off. You need to reapply it every 30 minutes if you’re sweating intensely, or right after coming out of the pool.

Any other words of advice?

Sitting in the shade can provide a lot of SPF. And wearing sun protective clothing. I recommend it.

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