A sunburn only goes skin deep, so it doesn't directly affect your baby if you're pregnant. However, side effects related to a severe sunburn could potentially have undesirable effects on your pregnancy. It's also important to watch for symptoms of overheating, which can pose problems for pregnant women. While redness from a sunburn becomes apparent within 2 to 6 hours, the full effect of a sunburn doesn't peak until 12 to 24 hours after exposure.
Although the skin feels hot when you get a sunburn, most people who are sunburned do not actually have a fever. The warmth of the skin related to a mild sunburn is usually due to inflammation of the skin rather than an increase in body temperature. However, a severe sunburn -- those that cause skin blisters or involve a large portion of the body surface -- can cause a fever. This is thought to be due to the release of large amounts of inflammatory chemicals into the bloodstream. Fever is a concern during pregnancy as it could have harmful effects on the baby's development and well-being. If you have a sunburn, monitor your temperature for the first 24 hours and call your doctor if you develop a fever of 100.4 F or higher
Pregnancy increases your risk for dehydration. Even if you're just sitting in the sun on a hot day, perspiring can quickly cause a significant amount of water loss and dehydration -- especially if the outdoor temperature is 90 F or higher, or the humidity is high. A sunburn typically doesn't cause dehydration per se, but if you've been in the sun long enough to get sunburned, you might also be dehydrated. Dehydration triggers a number of effects that could put you and your baby at risk. These primarily occur in pregnant women who develop heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Seek immediate medical attention if you develop symptoms suggestive of these heat-related conditions, including:
-- headache, irritability or confusion
-- dizziness or fainting
-- nausea and weakness
-- heavy sweating or hot, dry skin
-- decreased urination
Painless skin peeling is common after a mild to moderate sunburn. However, a severe sunburn can lead to the development of fluid-filled blisters, typically within 24 hours of the burn. A sunburn associated with blisters is considered the same as a second-degree thermal burn, which can be serious if a large area of the skin is involved. The blisters typically break easily, which can lead to fluid loss as water leaks from the damaged skin. Additionally, these open blisters can become infected, a development that could make a mother-to-be very sick. And when mom is sick, her baby is also at risk during pregnancy. Seek immediate medical care if you've sustained a severe sunburn with skin blistering.
Prevention and Next Steps
Sunblock, UV-protective clothing and umbrellas are the cornerstones of sunburn prevention for pregnant women, just as they are for anyone. If you're going to be in the sun, be sure to drink plenty of fluids. You might also consider limiting your time outside during the sunniest and hottest parts of the day, especially during the summer.
If you have a mild sunburn, comfort measures such as use of cool compresses or a cool bath, and application of soothing moisturizers can reduce your discomfort. Call your doctor if you have questions about treating a sunburn during pregnancy. Seek immediate medical care if you develop a fever, your skin blisters, or you experience any symptoms suggestive of heat exhaustion or a heat stroke.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.