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Sunburn Center

Drugs and Treatment for Sunburn

by
author image Mona Gohara, M.D.
Mona Gohara, M.D., practices general dermatology in Connecticut as part of the Advanced DermCare team. She graduated from the Medical College of Ohio, where she was a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society. She completed her medical internship at New York University Medical Center and her residency in dermatology at Yale University.
Drugs and Treatment for Sunburn
Photo Credit absolutimages/iStock/Getty Images

Overview

There is nothing like a sunburn to put a damper on that much-needed vacation. The redness and blisters can be very painful, although many people don’t treat their sunburns and just grin and bear it. Believe it or not, some people think it’s cool to get sunburned and show it off, waiting patiently for the burn to turn into a bronzed tan — another toxic insult to the skin. However, in the instances when sunburn is too miserable to handle or severe enough to warrant medical attention, there are treatment options.

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Use a Cool Compress

Putting a cold cloth or an ice pack wrapped in cloth onto hot, tender, inflamed skin can be soothing. Doing this two to three times a day for 10 to 15 minutes at a time can help decrease redness and provide relief of symptoms. An easy trick is to wet a washcloth and then freeze it for use on burned skin. It is also calming to take a cool shower or bath, followed by the application of aloe vera or a moisturizing lotion to reduce flakiness and peeling.

Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory (NSAID) Medications

For sunburns that are painful and swollen, the use of an NSAID may be beneficial. Ibuprofen is a well-known and effective NSAID. If you take Ibuprofen just after extreme sun exposure and continue with the appropriate dosing for the next

day or two, the inflammation process can be quelled and minimized quite easily. If the sunburn is persistent, a dermatologist may offer a topical cortisone cream to reduce swelling.

Hydrate, Hydrate and Hydrate Some More

The inflammation in the skin and surrounding tissues that occurs with sunburn draws fluid away from the rest of the body and toward the affected area. Drinking water becomes essential so that other organs do not get dehydrated. This is of particular importance if there is any associated nausea or vomiting. If there is vomiting, headache, weakness or malaise, it is important to seek medical help because rehydration in the form of intravenous (IV) fluids may be necessary.

Leave Blisters Alone

Blistering sunburns are a setup for skin cancer later in life. If they occur, it is first important to assess how much body surface area is involved. Anything over 20 percent (blisters all over the chest or back in an adult and one side of the trunk and face in a child) should be treated as a severe, second-degree burn needing medical attention immediately. Anything less than 20 percent can be managed at home. Popping or picking at blisters is not advised because the outer layer of skin protects from infection and helps the underlying skin to heal.

Know What to Avoid

Try not to use lotions or creams in the drugstore that contain petroleum, benzocaine or lidocaine. Petroleum can trap the heat in your skin, and benzocaine and lidocaine can irritate the skin.

Stay Out of the Sun

Taking on a “the damage is already done” attitude can only be further detrimental to one’s skin health. Should sunburn occur, make an extra effort to be cautious in the face of UV rays. Seeking shade, using a broad-brimmed hat, wearing sunglasses and applying a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher every two hours over all exposed areas will certainly reduce the likelihood of additional damage.

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