Authored by Revere Health

The Lasting Effects of Sunburns

September 13, 2017 | Dermatology

A sunburn is a red, painful patch of skin that feels hot to the touch, and it commonly appears within a few hours after exposure to too much ultraviolet (UV) light. Sources of this light include the sun or artificial sources like sunlamps. Sunburns can take several days or even longer to clear up.

Regular sun exposure leading to sunburn increases the risk of skin damage and other skin diseases, including cancer.


The signs and symptoms of a sunburn may include:

  • Pinkness or redness
  • Skin that feels warm or hot to the touch
  • Pain, tenderness, itching
  • Swelling
  • Small blisters filled with fluid, which may break
  • Headache, fever, nausea and fatigue for severe sunburns

Any part of the exposed body can burn, and even covered areas can burn if clothing has any elements that allow UV light through. The eyes can also burn. Symptoms generally appear within a few hours after sun exposure, though it may take up to a day or longer to know the full extent of the burn. In some cases, the body will heal itself after a few days by peeling off the top layer of damaged skin, after which skin may appear strangely colored or patterned. Severe sunburns can take several days or longer to fully heal.

If the sunburn is blistering, covering a large portion of the body, accompanied by a fever or extreme pain, or doesn’t improve within a few days, see your doctor. Also seek medical care if you notice symptoms of an infection, like increasing pain, tenderness, swelling, yellow drainage or red streaks from an open blister.


Repeated sun exposure leading to sunburn can increase the risk of several skin conditions:

  • Premature skin aging: Repeated sunburns can accelerate the skin’s aging process, which makes you look older than you actually are. When caused by UV light, these changes are called photoaging, which can lead to weakening of skin strength and elasticity, deep wrinkles, dry or rough skin, fine red veins on the cheeks, nose and ears, freckles and dark or discolored spots in various areas.
  • Precancerous skin lesions: Appearing as rough, scaly patches in sun-damaged areas, these can be whitish, pink, tan or brown. These can evolve into cancer.
  • Skin cancer: Even without a sunburn, excessive sun exposure increases the risk of skin cancer and can damage the DNA of skin cells. Skin cancer mainly develops on areas of the body that are most exposed to sunlight, such as the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms, hands and legs. If you notice a new skin growth, a discomforting change in skin, a change in the appearance or texture of a mole, or a sore that doesn’t heal, see your doctor.
  • Eye damage: The sun can burn the eyes and even damage the retina, lens or cornea. Sun damage can lead to cataracts, or clouding of the eye.

Causes and Risk Factors

Sunburns are caused by exposure to too much UV light—both UVA (associated with skin aging) and UVB (associated with sunburn). Sunlamps and tanning beds also produce UV light, and therefore can cause sunburn. A suntan is a way the body blocks UV rays to prevent sunburn and other damage, but this protection only lasts so long.

Some people think they can’t get sunburned on cloudy or cool days, but this is false. Up to 80 percent of UV rays pass through clouds, and several reflective surfaces can reflect UV rays and burn the skin. Risk factors for sunburn include:

  • Light skin, blue eyes, and red or blond hair
  • Living or vacationing somewhere sunny, warm or at a high altitude
  • Working outside
  • Mixing outdoor recreation and alcohol consumption
  • History of sunburn
  • Regular unprotected exposure to UV light

Drugs that make you more likely to burn (photosensitizing medications)

Treatment and Prevention

Sunburns will heal over a period of days, depending on the severity. Specific treatment won’t heal the skin, but it can reduce pain and prevent swelling and discomfort. For severe sunburns or those that don’t respond to home care, your doctor may offer treatment options.

Prevention methods for sunburns include:

  • Avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when sun rays are strongest.
  • Avoid sun tanning and tanning beds, as these do not decrease risk of sunburn.
  • Cover the skin when outside, including a wide-brimmed hat and covering clothing. Check labels for ultraviolet protection factor (UPF).
  • Use sunscreen regularly and generously. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF of 30 or higher. Reapply often, and use sunscreen before insect repellant if you plan to use both.
  • Wear sunglasses outdoors, particularly those with UVA and UVB protection.
  • Beware of medications like antihistamines, ibuprofen, certain antibiotics, antidepressants, antipsychotics and certain cholesterol-lowering drugs that may increase sun sensitivity. Speak to your doctor about any such side effects.

If you have regular sunburns or a severe sunburn, speak to your doctor about treatment methods and prevention.

Our providers take time to listen and communicate clearly with each patient, and our professional and courteous staff provides quality, personalized care for all of our patients’ general health and medical needs. We specialize in weight control, depression management, skin care, hormone replacement, cardiac conditions and cholesterol management. We strive to provide our patients and their families with quality healthcare services and respect their right to participate in all treatment decisions.


“Sunburn.” The Mayo Clinic.

“Sunburn.” WebMD.

The Live Better Team


The Live Better Team

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.