Sunburn is the term for red, sometimes swollen and painful skin, caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. Sunburn can vary from mild to severe, depending on skin type and amount of exposure to the sun. Sunburn is a serious risk factor for skin cancer and for sun damage (eg wrinkles and sun spots).

First Degree Burn (Superficial Burn)

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Sunburn is caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Your risk of sunburn increases with:

  • Exposure to the sun
  • Light skin color
  • Certain medications that may increase your sensitivity to the sun, such as antibiotics, diuretics (water pills), or oral contraceptives
  • Geographical location: highest incidence in southern United States


The symptoms of sunburn vary from person to person. You may not notice redness of the skin for several hours after the burn has begun. Peak redness will take 12 to 24 hours.

Symptoms include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Warmth
  • Pain
  • Blisters
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea and vomiting in severe cases
  • Weakness
  • Symptoms of shock, including:
    • Low blood pressure
    • Fainting
    • Extreme weakness (in rare and serious cases)


A mild sunburn does not usually require a visit to the doctor. However, if you have any of the above symptoms, seek medical attention. The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. For more severe cases of sun damage, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin disorders (dermatologist).


Treatment will vary depending on the severity of the sunburn. The first and most important step in treatment involves getting out of the sun at the first sign of redness or tingling and staying out of the sun until the skin is fully healed, which may take several weeks.

In addition, you can do the following:

  • Apply a cool water compress to soothe raw, hot skin.
  • Take over-the-counter anti-inflammatories.
  • Take oral or topical corticosteroids to shorten the course of pain and inflammation, recommended or prescribed by your doctor.
  • Take prescription antibiotics if an infection develops.
  • Be extra careful to protect skin after it peels. The skin is very sensitive after peeling.


To prevent sunburn, you must shield your skin from the sun's rays.

  • Avoid strong, direct sunlight.
  • Plan outdoor activities early or late in the day to avoid peak sunlight hours between 10 AM-4 PM.
  • Choose a sunscreen, sunblock, or special sunblock clothes with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 that filters out both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Apply sunscreen liberally, thoroughly, and frequently to all exposed skin, including the lips.
  • Wear protective, tightly woven clothing, as well as a broad-rimmed hat and sunglasses.

Keep in mind that water is not a good filter and you can become sunburned while swimming or snorkeling. You can also become sunburned during the winter and on cloudy or foggy days.


American Academy of Dermatology

Skin Cancer Foundation


Canadian Dermatology Association


American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: .

Han A, Maibach HI. Management of acute sunburn. Am J Clin Dermatol . 2004;5:39-47.

Oliveria SA, Saraiya M, Geller AC, et al. Sun exposure and risk of melanoma. Arch Dis Child . 2006;91:131-8.

Sies H, Stahl W. Nutritional protection against skin damage from sunlight. Annu Rev Nutr . 2004:24:173-200.

Last reviewed March 2008 by Ross Zeltser, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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