Healthcare Library

How to treat a sunburn

We all know that preventing sunburn is the best. But what do you do if you get sunburn? I'm Dr. Alan Greene. Let's talk about that together. When you have a burn from the sun, a radiation burn from the sun, there are a couple of things going on. One is that there's a heat injury. The skin gets hot. You can feel it when you touch it. You can feel it in the burn itself. And another is the outer protective layer is damaged, so the skin can dry out too easily. So the keys to treating a sunburn are to keep the skin cool and moist. So, one great way to do that is with what we call a cool compress. Just take a washcloth. Put some cool water in there and press gently onto the skin. Or you might do a shower - frequent, cool, and lukewarm showers. Either way right afterwards you want to slather on a good moisturizer to try to seal some of that water in, moisture in, preferably a moisturizer that doesn't contain alcohol or any other drying agent. Another time-honored remedy is the Aloe vera plant. And there's some recent studies questioning how effective it really is, but many people swear by it. You cut a little tip off the end of the plant and that gel you rub just directly onto the sunburn itself. And it certainly feels soothing and may help beyond that. Another piece of treating sunburn is to deal with the pain and the inflammation. And for that you might try acetaminophen for the pain or ibuprofen for the pain and inflammation both. Hopefully that will at least take the edge off. But also hopefully that discomfort will help remind you next time to take extra steps to prevent sunburn.

How to treat a sunburn

Review Date: 5/20/2019

Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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