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Sun safe

Tips on how to avoid sunburn this summer

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Summer 2013

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is the redness, soreness, itching, and sometimes blistering that occurs after your skin has too much exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun or a sunlamp.

How does it occur?

You may become sunburned when:

  • You stay out in the sun too long without enough protection from sunscreen or clothing.
  • You are in the sun when sunlight is most intense, usually between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • You take medicines that make your skin more sensitive to the sun.
  • You live or travel in an area where sunlight is more intense, such as in the tropics or at high altitude, or you are exposed to reflection of sunlight from water or snow.

Can you get sunburned on a cloudy day?

Yes. It doesn't have to be hot or even sunny for you to become sunburned.

What are the symptoms?

One of the problems with sunburn is that you may not have any symptoms until a few hours after you have been burned.

The symptoms are:

  • Redness
  • A feeling of heat
  • Mild to severe pain to the touch
  • Blisters in severe cases.

Within a couple of days, your skin may itch. In about a week the skin may peel.

How is it treated?

It may help to:

  • Soak in a cool bath. Adding bath products containing oatmeal may help to decrease itching and the burned feeling.
  • Put cool, moist cloths on the sunburned skin several times a day.
  • Take an anti-inflammatory medicine, such as Aspirin or ibuprofen. It will help the sunburn be less painful. It may also lessen the damage to your skin, especially if you start taking it when you first suspect you are sunburned. Remember, ASA (Aspirin) should NEVER be given to children because it can cause a severe liver and brain disease called Reye's Syndrome.)
  • Put aloe vera lotion or another moisturizing lotion on your skin three times a day for two days.
  • Put calamine lotion on your skin to lessen the itching.
  • Take antihistamine tablets.

If you have just a few shallow blisters, treat them like a minor household burn. You can apply some antibiotic ointment, and then cover the blistered area with a bandage. Don't try to open the blisters.

How long will the effects last?

The symptoms of sunburn usually worsen 24 to 48 hours after you are burned. The symptoms gradually go away over the next few days.

Are there any long-term effects?

Yes. Sunburn causes long-term damage to the skin. Redness alone is the same as a first-degree burn. Redness with blistering is a second-degree burn. Both types of sunburn are harmful to the skin and over time increase the risk of skin cancer. Blistering burns increase the risk of malignant skin cancer (melanoma) by several times. This is especially true if you have severe sunburns three or more times when you are a teen or young adult.

Too much sun exposure, even without sunburn, also causes the skin to age faster. Wrinkles, sagging, and brown sunspots develop at an earlier age.

What can I do to prevent over-exposure to sunlight?

There are many ways and many products to prevent over-exposure to the sun's harmful rays. They include:

  • Don't stay out in the sun for a long time, especially if you are fair-skinned and burn easily. Remember that you can become sunburned even on cloudy days.
  • Stay out of the sun during the times of most intense rays: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during daylight savings time.
  • Environment Canada has created a UV Index that provides guidance on how strong the sun's rays are and can help reduce the risk of sunburn and skin cancer. Check the UV Index before heading outdoors.
  • Use a sunscreen or sunblock even on cloudy days.

What kind of sun protection should I use?

If using sunscreen, use one with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or greater. The lighter your skin, the higher SPF you need. Health-care providers recommend SPF 45 if you are very fair skinned.

Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. It's best to put the sunscreen on your skin 30 to 60 minutes before you go out into the sun. If you are playing in water or sweating a lot, put more sunscreen on every hour or two.

Wear protective clothing: hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants. Be careful if you are at high altitude or vacationing in the tropics, or if the sun's rays are being reflected by water, sand, snow, or concrete.

Do not use sunlamps or tanning booths. They are promoted as using mostly ultraviolet A (UVA), but both UVA and ultraviolet B (UVB) cause skin damage. UVA actually penetrates more deeply into the skin than UVB. Both UVA and UVB cause sunburn, aging of the skin and skin cancer.

Can sunlight damage the eyes?

Yes. That's why it is important to wear sunglasses that provide 100 per cent UV ray protection.

Which is better: sunscreen or sunblock?

Sunscreen and sunblock work differently to protect your skin from the sun's rays. Sunscreen absorbs UV light so it doesn't reach your skin. Some sunscreens absorb both UVA and UVB rays, but it varies with different products. Sunblock physically blocks UVA and UVB rays from reaching your skin. It is usually opaque, you can see the cream on your skin, although newer sunblocks are invisible. Many people use them on small areas of their body such as ears, cheeks or noses. Many new products contain sunscreen and sunblock products; look for sunscreens that list titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as ingredients.

Audra Kolesar is a registered nurse and manager with Health Links - Info Santé, the Winnipeg Health Region's telephone health information service.

The information for this column is provided by Health Links - Info Santé. It is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional. You can access health information from a registered nurse 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling Health Links - Info Santé. Call 788-8200 or toll-free 1-888-315-9257.

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