The stages of a sunburn | How a sunburn affects your skin - Page

  • Posted on: Aug 2 2023
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asarch blog stages of sunburn

From short-term redness and discomfort to peeling and blistering, sunburn can cause a wide range of symptoms – and long after your sunburn fades away, the lasting damage remains.

The skin care experts at Asarch Dermatology are here to explain the stages of a sunburn and what happens beneath the surface of your skin, how to reduce your sunburn risk, and when to seek professional care.

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is when your skin gets damaged from too much UV exposure. You don’t necessarily have to spend the entire day in the sun to get sunburned, especially in Colorado. Many people get sunburned doing everyday things, such as eating outside, gardening, hiking, or playing sports. The sun doesn’t even have to be shining – 80% of UV rays are able to penetrate clouds.

Sunburn typically begins to appear 2-6 hours after UV exposure and peaks within 24 hours. Most mild sunburns last for a few days. However, moderate and severe sunburns can take 1-2 weeks or more to heal. Some sunburns are severe enough to require hospitalization.

What are the symptoms of sunburn?

Your sunburn symptoms will depend on how severe the sunburn is. Common symptoms for mild sunburn include:

  • Red skin
  • Skin that feels tender and/or hot to the touch
  • Swelling
  • Eventual peeling as the skin heals

Moderate sunburn may include:

  • Extremely red and/or wet-looking skin
  • Pain
  • Blistering
  • Swelling over a larger area
  • White discoloration within the burn

With moderate sunburn, you may also begin to experience symptoms of heat illness, such as:

  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Muscle cramps
  • Rapid breathing

Symptoms of a severe sunburn include:

  • Leathery-looking skin
  • Numb skin
  • White or dull skin color
  • Any of the above heat illness symptoms
  • Shock or heat stroke

Not everyone reacts the same way to sun exposure, and there are a number of factors that can affect how long your sunburn symptoms last. For instance, people with light skin, red hair, or freckles tend to burn more easily and take longer to heal. Even the time of day can play a role – the sun’s rays are most intense from 10 AM to 3 PM.

What are the stages of a sunburn?

Here are the stages that your skin goes through before, during, and after a sunburn, including what happens below the surface.

Stage 1: Blood flow

Much of the warmth you feel in the sun comes from the absorption and conversion of UV rays to heat by the melanin in your skin. The amount of melanin you have determines your skin color – the darker you are, the more natural protection you have.

Whenever you’re exposed to sunlight, the melanin in your skin automatically shifts into defense mode. Any UV rays that get through instantly damage the DNA in the cells of your epidermis (the outermost layer of skin), prompting the blood vessels below to dilate and increase blood flow. Pale-skinned people can start pinking up in as little as 10 minutes, while it may take an hour or more for people with darker skin.

Stage 2: Redness and inflammation

After a few hours, all that extra blood flow makes your skin look red and feel warm to the touch. Inflammation also sets in, adding to your swelling and pain.

The longer your skin is exposed to sunlight, the greater and deeper the extent of the DNA damage. Most of the damaged cells begin the process of dying (apoptosis), which leads to shedding and peeling. However, the cells that are too deep in the skin may mutate, which can lead to skin cancer.

Stage 3: Blistering

Sometimes, cells in your skin’s dermis (the layer beneath the epidermis) are damaged as well, resulting in fluid-filled blisters. These blisters create a soft, protective bubble so the injured dermal tissue below them can heal. Blisters typically appear anywhere from 6-24 hours after initial UV exposure.

Stage 4: Peeling

Lastly, your body must compensate for all the destroyed cells in your skin by creating fresh replacements. Cells called keratinocytes replicate and slowly move through layers to reach the epidermis, a process that should take about a month. When sun damage accelerates this natural process, keratinocytes are rushed to the surface and stick together like a sheet of tissue paper – hence their flaky appearance on your skin. Peeling after a sunburn can last several days.

How is sunburn treated?

Most mild sunburns can be treated by:

  • Covering your skin as it heals, especially if you go outside
  • Using hydrocortisone cream or aloe vera gel to hydrate your skin
  • Taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to reduce pain and swelling
  • Taking cool showers or baths (add baking soda or oatmeal to the water for extra soothing)
  • Moisturizing your skin regularly
  • Drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration

Never pop blisters or peel skin yourself. It’s far better for your skin to let it happen naturally.

How can I reduce my risk of sunburn?

Just because you live at a high altitude doesn’t mean you have to endure more sunburns. You can lessen your risk of sun damage by:

  • Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher every day
  • Reapplying sunscreen every 90 minutes if you’re outdoors (and more often after sweating or swimming)
  • Not using indoor tanning beds
  • Using extra caution when taking medications that increase your sensitivity to the sun
  • Wearing protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats
  • Visiting your Asarch dermatologist for annual skin cancer checks

What are the long-term effects of sunburn?

It’s worth preventing sunburn whenever you can. Sunburn not only accelerates skin aging but is a leading cause of skin cancer. Just one blistering sunburn during childhood more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) later in life.

Frequent sunburns and exposure to UV rays can also cause skin issues like:

  • Dark spots
  • Freckles
  • Wrinkles
  • Sagging
  • Scaly, rough patches that may become skin cancer

When should I seek medical care?

Seek medical care immediately after a sunburn if you have:

  • Blisters over more than 20% of your body
  • Extreme pain or swelling
  • A fever of 102° or higher
  • Any signs of infection, such as pus-filled blisters
  • Any signs of dehydration, including dark-colored urine or dizziness
  • Vision changes

Asarch Dermatology has your sunburn solutions

Sun exposure is tough on skin. Whether you want to explore your options for repairing sun damage or purchase skin care products that prevent sunburn, Asarch Dermatology is ready to help. Schedule an appointment with one of our board-certified dermatologists today!

Posted in: Skin Cancer

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