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Sunburn Center

Possible Complications of Sunburn

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.
Possible Complications of Sunburn
Photo Credit Kali Nine LLC/E+/Getty Images


Sunburn is not an uncommon event. According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just over 50 percent of all adults have at least one sunburn per year. The same research showed that two-thirds of U.S. children sunburn every summer. When it comes to the complications associated with sunburn, all it takes is one. In fact, just one blistering sunburn doubles one’s lifetime risk of a potentially fatal skin cancer called melanoma. Although that is an extreme consequence of too much sun, there are other consequences that occur frequently, such as the development of non-melanoma skin cancers.

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Short-Term Complications

When someone suffers from sunburn, they are not only at risk for red, tender, blistered skin. The rash of sunburn can be accompanied by fever, chills, nausea, vomiting and dehydration as a result of the body’s inflammatory response to this toxic insult. Medical attention is advised in the case of high fever (102° F or more), if more than 20 percent of the body’s surface area is blistered or if there is continuous vomiting that could lead to dehydration.

Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common malignancy in the United States — more common than the incidence of breast, lung, prostate and colon cancer combined. In fact, one in five Americans will get a skin cancer diagnosis at some point in their life. Intensive sun exposure and sunburn are linked to the development of melanoma, a potentially fatal skin cancer. Just one blistering or five nonblistering sunburns in adolescence can double one’s lifetime risk of developing this malignancy.

Nonmelanoma skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), in which 90 percent are caused by unprotected exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Although BCC and SCC are not as aggressive as melanoma, they can metastasize to the lymph nodes or other organs and can certainly be cosmetically destructive. Generally, skin cancers are managed by a dermatologist and treated with surgery. If they are in early stages, they may be cured with less invasive procedures, such as liquid nitrogen, electric cautery or a variety of chemotherapeutic creams. More advanced cases are managed with systemic therapies in a multidisciplinary way with not only dermatologists, but with oncologists and surgeons as well. So why are skin malignancies so common? Why does one person die of melanoma each hour? Because that one sunburn that most Americans get before the age of 2 is unfortunately a perfect primer for skin cancer later in life.

Premature Aging

Ninety percent of the signs of visible aging comes from unprotected exposure to UV rays. This includes, but is not limited to, wrinkles, saggy skin, discoloration, sunspots and textural changes on the skin. When sunburn occurs, free radicals cling to and destroy our collagen and elastin, resulting in an aged appearance. Although many people spend a lot of money on skin lasers and injectables (such as botox) to combat this aged appearance, the best way to prevent premature aging is to purchase a bottle of a broad-spectrum sunscreen, SPF 30 or higher, and apply it every two hours while in the sun.

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