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How to Treat a Sunburn for Fast Relief

Shape logo Shape 1/13/2021 Renee Cherry
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Getting a sunburn can spoil a fun day outside, and not just because it might make you the butt of a few "lobster" jokes. Sunburns can itch and sting for days, acting as an unpleasant reminder that you slacked off with the SPF. (Related: The Best After-Sun Lotions for Your Parched Skin and Lobster-Red Burn)

The best way to avoid discomfort is to prevent sunburn in the first place, applying and reapplying sunscreen with at least SPF 30, as recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation, and staying out of direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun's rays are strongest, adds JiaDe Yu, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School and contracted specialist at AristaMD. No matter how you end up treating your sunburn, you want to stay out of the sun while your burn is healing to avoid causing further damage, he advises. While you're riding it, there are steps you can take to ease the discomfort.

"Once the damage is done, the inflammation induced by the burned skin is triggered leading to itching, pain, and blistering in severe cases," says Dr. Yu, who is also the director of the Occupational and Contact Dermatitis Clinic at Mass General. "Cool baths and cold compresses can help ease some discomfort." Just don't stay in the tub for too long and avoid using harsh soaps, as both can dry out and irritate your skin, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation.

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Your first instinct might be to reach for your bottle of pure aloe vera, and that can be a helpful step, says Dr. Yu. But if you're fresh out of the soothing slime, there are several other options that can provide relief. "Topical treatments include mild steroids such as hydrocortisone available over the counter or prescription topical steroids from your dermatologist," says Dr. Yu. "This can help reduce inflammation and alleviate some symptoms of burning and pain. Other topicals including soothing ointments such as Vaseline, Cerave ointment, Aquaphor, etc. are all appropriate to help the skin heal." (Related: Why a Sunburn Can Make You Sick, According to a Dermatologist)

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Over-the-counter pain medications are also an option if you're dealing with a painful burn. "Oral treatments include ibuprofen, aspirin, and Tylenol for pain and discomfort," says Dr. Yu. All three are intended as treatments for minor aches and pains or fevers, and ibuprofen and aspirin are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) so they can reduce inflammation. (Related: Yes, Your Eyes Can Get Sunburned — Here's How to Make Sure That Doesn't Happen)

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While there are plenty of options for treating a sunburn at home, if you're dealing with a severe sunburn, a doctor can offer solutions that you can't access on your own. If you're in a lot of pain, a dermatologist might suggest LED light treatments that can help boost skin repair and soothe the burn or the aforementioned prescription topical steroids. If your symptoms include swelling, headache, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, or blisters covering more than 20 percent of your skin's surface, it's time to see a doctor ASAP. These symptoms could signal that your sunburn is so severe it's triggered a major response from your body's immune response to combat the inflammation.

Keep in mind that there's no cure for a sunburn, just ways to make it less bothersome. "None of these treatments will prevent the itching, pain, and blistering from severe sunburns but can help alleviate some symptoms," confirms Dr. Yu. All the more reason to commit to a new sunscreen habit and avoid a repeat incident.

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