What to do if you get sunburnt.

By Dr Umberto Russo MBBS, FRACGP

We’ve all done it. Forgotten the sunscreen at the beach. Fallen asleep in the deck chair. Walked to the shops without a hat. Getting sunburnt is unfortunately a fact of life in Australia, where the sun is particularly strong and we all like to spend time out of doors.

Australians are well aware of the dangers lurking in UV rays. We have the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world, and every episode of sunburn increases your risk of melanoma.  So I don’t need to lecture you about sun protection. If you’ve accidentally suffered a bout of sunburn, you’ll be feeling very sorry for yourself, and probably wondering what you can do to ease the pain. While there is nothing you can do to reverse the burn, or speed up the healing process, there are some tips to help ease the pain of sunburn.

Get out of the sun

As soon as you realise you are getting burnt, seek shade and try to stay out of the sun altogether. The sunburn can take a few hours to develop, and a few days to recover. While you are red, peeling and in pain, stay out of the sun.

Keep your cool

A cool bath or shower can help take some of the heat out of your painful, burnt skin. A cold damp towel applied gently to the affected area can help ease the pain.  

Leave it alone

With second-degree sunburn, your skin will start to blister and peel. Don’t break open blisters or peel off skin, as you will risk scarring and infection. Keep the area clean with water.

Soothe the inflammation

You may find it helpful to treat the discomfort and inflammation with a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen or aspirin. A 1% over-the-counter cortisone cream may also help.

Moisturise

A gentle moisturising lotion containing aloe vera or soy can help soothe sunburnt areas, but avoid lotions or creams that contain petroleum, benzocaine or lidocaine, which can trap the heat in or irritate the skin.

Drink water

The body’s reaction to burns is to draw fluids to the surface, which may leave you feeling dehydrated. Drink plenty of fluids such as water or sports drinks immediately after and in the days following the sun exposure.

Seek doctor’s advice

If you have suffered severe sunburn and you are experiencing nausea, headache, dizziness or vomiting, seek medical advice immediately. You may be suffering from heat exhaustion or heatstroke. If your GP is closed, you can call 13SICK for a bulk billed after hours doctor home visit.

Be sun smart

The best way to avoid the damaging effects of sunburn is to protect yourself from the sun every day. That means the old mantra of slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on a pair of sunglasses. You can teach your kids these sun safe strategies too.


Dr Umberto Russo MBBS (Adelaide) FRACGP is Chief Medical Officer at 13SICK, National Home Doctor Service. He has more than 25 years' experience as both a General Practitioner and as a visiting home doctor, with a special interest in urgent medical care.

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