life of
dr. mom

How To Treat Sunburns?

As a child, I remember hating wearing sunscreen. My mom would put it on me and it would always end up getting into my eyes and stinging. There were a few times on family vacations as a child when I told my parents I put on sunscreen when I actually didn’t, and I would end up getting a sunburn. However, once I hit my 20’s I became aware of the damage sunburns can cause later in life and consistently started wearing sunscreen. As a mother I have become even more diligent on putting sunscreen on my daughter Madi and myself when we leave the house! 

Treatment of sunburns

Sunburns are unfortunately very common.  The good news is that they are largely preventable!  Using sunscreen and other sun-safe strategies like protective clothing, hats, and seeking shade all are effective methods to prevent sunburns.  But sometimes sunburns still happen, and we have to deal with the consequences of sunburn. 

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is an inflammatory response of the skin to the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or from tanning beds.  Both UVA and UVB rays can cause sunburn.  This is why sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays. 

How long does a sunburn last?

Sunburn is self-limited, which means it typically goes away by itself within a week.  The first sign of sunburn is red, tender and hot skin, usually within 6 hours of sun exposure.  The redness “peaks” or is at its worst at 12-24 hours and usually calms down in 3 days. 

More severe sunburn will blister and you or your child may experience headaches, fever, and nausea or vomiting.

Who is at risk for sunburn?

EVERYONE!  Some people are at a higher risk than others because of their natural skin types. Those that have fair skin, blue eyes, and red or blond hair are more at risk – and should take extra sun safety precautions to prevent sunburn.

Sunburns increase our risk for skin cancer and early aging of the skin.  

How do you treat sunburn?

Unfortunately there are no treatments that speed up healing time of sunburn.  The good news is there are treatments available to manage the uncomfortable symptoms associated with sunburn, until the skin can heal itself.  

Treatment of mild to moderate sunburn:

  • Apply cool compresses.
  • Aloe vera gel or calamine lotion to affected areas to ease some of the discomfort.
  • You can use acetaminophen or ibuprofen (in infants greater than 6 months old) for a day or two if you or your child is very uncomfortable. 
  • Drink lots of water!

Blisters should be left alone until they break on their own.  If they do break, clean the area with mild soap and water and cover with a sterile dressing..

But some sunburns are severe and cause lots of pain!

Some sunburn can be very severe.  In these cases, symptoms such as extensive blisters, fevers, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, fainting, and severe pain can result.  A hospital might be necessary for hydration and pain control.  See your health care provider if you are concerned about your child or yourself! 

Always remember, your best line of defense against sunburn is to prevent them from happening in the first place!  Follow these tips here for sun safety.


  1. Han A, Maibach HI. Management of acute sunburn. Am J Clin Dermatol 2004;5:39-47. 
  2. Dat AD, Poon F, Pham KB et al. Aloe vera for treating acute and chronic wounds. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2012;2:CD008762.
  3. Rhodes LE, Lim HW. The acute effects of ultraviolet radiation on the skin. In: Photodermatology, Lim HW, Honigsmann H, Hawk JL (Eds), Informa Healthcare USA Inc., New York 2007. p.75.

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