Sunburn – Guide to health

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37 Cooling Treatments

You could just kick yourself for getting a sunburn. And you probably would if you weren’t in such pain. Really, you know better than to abuse your skin this way. You know all about sunscreens and how they protect against the ravages of old Sol’s burning rays. But, well, you got careless, and now you’re paying plenty in terms of discomfort and lost sleep. Hopefully, you’ve learned your lesson. Next time you won’t be caught with your sunscreen down. But for now, heed this advice from the experts.

Reach for a pain reliever. The old standby aspirin can help relieve the pain, itching, and swelling of a mild to moderate burn. “Take two tablets every 4 hours,” says University of Nebraska dermatologist and assistant professor of internal medicine Rodney Basler, M.D. “The same dosage of Tylenol would work also. Or, if your stomach can tolerate it, you might try three or four tablets of ibuprofen every 8 hours.”

Anticipate a burn. If you know you’ve gotten too much sun, try taking aspirin before the redness appears. “Some doctors recommend 650 milligrams of aspirin [two tablets] soon after sun exposure. Repeat every 4 hours for up to six doses,” says Thomas Gossel, Ph.D., R.Ph., a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Ohio Northern University.

Apply soothing compresses. Following a burn, the skin is inflamed. Try cooling it down with compresses dipped in any one of the following substances. If desired, you can direct a fan on the sunburned area to heighten cooling.

Cold water. Use either plain water from the faucet or add a few ice cubes, says Arizona dermatologist Michael Schreiber, M.D., senior clinical lecturer in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Dip a cloth into the liquid and lay it over the burn. Repeat every few minutes as the cloth warms. Apply several times a day for a total of 10 to 15 minutes each.


Get Thee to a Doctor

A severe burn can take a lot out of you, says Rodney Basler, M.D. Consult a doctor if you experience nausea, chills, fever, faintness, extensive blistering, general weakness, patches of purple discoloration, or intense itching. And be aware that if the burn seems to be spreading, you could have an infection compounding the problem.

Skim milk. Milk protein is very soothing, says Dr. Schreiber. Mix 1 cup skim milk with 4 cups water, then add a few ice cubes. Apply compresses for 15 to 20 minutes; repeat every 2 to 4 hours.

Aluminum acetate. If itching is intense, says Dr. Gossel, try mixing Buro-Sol antiseptic powder or Domeboro’s powder (both available in pharmacies) with water. The aluminum acetate in either will keep the skin from getting too dry or itchy. Follow package directions.

Oatmeal. Dermatologist Fredric Haberman, M.D., a clinical instructor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, recommends oatmeal water, which soothes the skin. Wrap dry oatmeal in cheesecloth or gauze. Run cool water through it. Discard the oatmeal and soak compresses in the liquid. Apply every 2 to 4 hours.

Witch hazel. Moisten a cloth with witch hazel, says Dr. Haberman. Apply often for temporary relief. For smaller areas, dip cotton balls into the liquid and gently stroke on.

Soak the pain away. An alternative to compressives—especially for larger areas—is a cool bath. Add more liquid as needed to keep the water at the proper temperature. Afterward, gently pat your skin dry with a clean towel. Do not rub your skin or you’ll irritate it further. The following substances can reduce pain, itching, and inflammation.

The Alternate Route

Kitchen Cabinet Remedies

Common kitchen staples can be great sunburn soothers. Press the following into emergency action.

Cornstarch. Add enough water to cornstarch to make a paste, says Fredric Haberman, M.D. Apply directly to the sunburn.

Vegetable slices. Some people get relief from thin slices of raw cucumber or potato, he adds. They feel cool and may help reduce inflammation on small areas. Apple slices may also work.

Lettuce. A soothing homemade solution comes from New York City skin care specialist Lia Schorr. Boil lettuce leaves in water. Strain, then let the liquid cool several hours in the refrigerator. Dip cotton balls into the liquid and gently press or stroke onto irritated skin.

Yogurt. Plain yogurt is both cooling and soothing, she says. Apply to all sunburned areas. Rinse off in a cool shower, then gently pat skin dry.

Tea bags. If your eyelids are burned, apply tea bags soaked in cool water to decrease swelling and help relief pain, says Schorr.

Vinegar. Mix 1 cup of white vinegar into a tub of cool water, says Carl Korn, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Southern California.

Aveeno powder. If the sunburn involves a large area, use the pre-measured packets or add 1/2 cup of Aveeno Bath Treatment, which is made from oatmeal, to a tub of cool water, says Dr. Schreiber. Soak for 15 to 20 minutes.

Baking soda. Generously sprinkle baking soda into tepid bathwater, suggests Dr. Haberman. Instead of toweling off, let the solution dry on your skin.

Go easy on soap. Soap can dry and irritate burned skin. If you must use soap, says Dr. Gossel, use only a mild brand and rinse it off very well. Do not soak in soapy water. Likewise, stay away from bubble baths.

Moisturize your skin. Soaks and compresses feel good and give temporary relief, says Dr. Basler. But they can make your skin feel drier than before if you don’t apply moisturizer immediately afterward. Pat yourself dry, then smooth on some bath oil.

Let it soak in for a minute, then apply a moisturizing cream or lotion, such as Eucerin. Some people like a topical cream called Wibi, which contains a little bit of cooling menthol.

Chill out. For added relief, try chilling your moisturizer before applying it.

Seek hydrocortisone relief. Soothe skin irritation and inflammation with a topical lotion, spray, or ointment containing 0.05 percent hydrocortisone, such as Cortaid or Cortizone-5, says Dr. Basler.

Say good-bye with aloe. “We’re starting to see evidence in medical literature that aloe vera may really help wound healing,” says Dr. Basler. Simply break off a leaf and apply the juice. But test a small area first, he cautions, to make sure you’re not allergic to aloe.

Guard against infection. If you have an infection or are worried that one will develop, use an over-the-counter antibacterial ointment such as Polysporin or bacitracin Sterile, says Dr. Schreiber.

Try a local anesthetic. If your burn is mild, an over-the-counter anesthetic can relieve pain and itching, says Dr. Gossel. Look for brands that contain benzocaine, benzyl alcohol, lidocaine, or diphenhydramine hydrochloride. Aerosols are easier to apply than creams or ointments, but never spray them directly onto your face. Instead, put some on a piece of gauze or a cotton pad and rub it on your face to avoid contact with your eyes.

Try an ice pack. An ice pack can also provide relief if the burn is mild. Wrap it in a damp cloth and hold it over the sunburn. Improvise, if necessary, says Dr. Haberman. “You could even take a big of frozen peas, for instance, and use that. But make sure to wrap it first so you’re not placing the icy package directly against your skin.”

Drink up. It’s a good idea to drink lots of water to help counteract the drying effect of a burn, says Dr. Gossel.

Eat right. Eat lightly but wisely, he adds. A balanced diet will help provide the nutrients your skin needs to regenerate itself.

Are You Photosensitive?

We’re not asking if you like to have your picture taken. The question is whether certain drugs, soaps, or cosmetics increase your sensitivity to the sun and lead to a burnlike dermatitis.

Antibiotics, tranquilizers, and antifungal medications can cause reactions, says Rodney Basler, M.D. So can oral contraceptives, diuretics, drugs for diabetes, and even PABA-containing sunscreens. Always ask your doctor about potential side effects of any oral drugs you may be taking.

Even common foods can trigger a bad reaction. “Two young women I know tried to lighten their hair with lime juice,” he says. “They didn’t realize what a potent photosensitizer lime juice can be until they developed terrible dermatitis every place the juice had run down their faces and arms.”

Raise your legs. If your legs are burned and your feet are swollen, elevate your legs above heart level, says Dr. Basler. You’ll feel better.

Get a good night’s rest. Sleeping on a sunburn can be murder, but you need a lot of rest for your body to recover from the burn. So try sprinkling talcum powder on your sheets to minimize chafing and friction, says Dr. Haberman. A water bed or air mattress might also help you sleep easier.

Be careful with blisters. If you develop blisters, you have a pretty bad burn. If they bother you and they cover only a small area, you may carefully drain them, says Dr. Basler. But do not peel the top skin off—you’ll have less discomfort and danger of infection if air does not come in contact with sensitive nerve endings.

To drain the fluid, first sterilize a needle by holding it over a match flame. Then puncture the edge of the blister and press gently on the top to let the fluid come out. Do this three times in the first 24 hours, says Dr. Basler. Then leave the blisters alone.

Beware ice and snow. Don’t let your guard down in winter, says Butch Farabee, emergency services coordinator for the National Park Service. You can get a fierce burn from the sun’s rays reflected off ice and snow. “I’ve even gotten the inside of my mouth sunburned when hiking up icy hills because I was breathing so hard that my mouth was open.” So cover up appropriately and wear sunscreen on all exposed areas.

Don’t make the same mistake twice. After you’ve gotten burned, it takes three to six months for your skin to return to normal, says Dr. Schreiber. “When you get a sunburn and the top layer of skin peels off, the newly exposed skin is more sensitive than ever. That means you’ll burn even faster than you did before if you’re not careful.”

Follow the rules. While the memory of your burn is still painfully fresh, brush up on your sun sense with these tips from Normal Levine, M.D., chief of dermatology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

  • Apply a sunscreen about 30 minutes before going out, even if it’s overcast. (Harmful rays can penetrate cloud cover.) Don’t forget to protect your lips, hands, ears, and the back of your neck. Reapply as necessary after swimming or perspiring heavily.
  • Take extra care between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. (11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., daylight saving time), when the sun is at its hottest.
  • If you insist upon getting a tan, do so very gradually. Start with 15 minutes’ exposure and increase it only a few minutes at a time.
  • Wear protective clothing when not swimming or sunbathing. Hats, tightly woven fabrics, and long sleeves help keep the sun off your skin.

Rodney Basler, M.D., is a dermatologist and assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in Lincoln.

Butch Farabee is emergency services coordinator for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. He has 22 years of field experience as a park ranger.

Thomas Gossel, Ph.D., R.Ph., is a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Ohio Northern University in Ada and chairman of the University’s Department of Pharmacology and Biomedical Sciences. He is an expert on over-the-counter products.

Fredric Haberman, M.D., is a dermatologist in Bergen County, New Jersey, and New York City. He is also a clinical instructor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York City. He is the author of the book Your Skin: A Dermatologist’s Guide to Lifetime of Beauty and Health. He is also president and founder of Save Our Children’s Skin (SOCS), a foundation dedicated to preventing skin cancer and other childhood skin afflictions.

Carl Korn, M.D., is an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Norman Levine, M.D., is chief of dermatology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson.

Lia Schorr is a skin care specialist in New York City and author of Lia Schorr’s Seasonal Skin Care.

Michael Schreiber, M.D., is a dermatologist in private practice in Tucson, Arizona. He is also senior clinical lecturer in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson.

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