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Family Health

Sunburn - Part 2

Complications

Intense sun exposure that results in sunburn increases your risk of certain complications and related skin diseases. These include infection, premature aging of your skin and skin cancer.

Infection

Ruptured blisters make you more susceptible to bacterial infection. See your doctor if you notice signs or symptoms of infection, which include pain, redness, swelling or oozing.

Photoaging

Sun exposure and repeated sunburns accelerate the aging process of skin, making you appear older than you are. Skin changes caused by the sun are called photoaging. The results of photoaging include:

  • Weakening of connective tissues, which reduces the skin's strength and elasticity
  • Thinner, more translucent-looking skin
  • Deep wrinkles
  • Dry, rough skin
  • Fine red veins on your cheeks, nose and ears
  • Freckles, mostly on your face and shoulders
  • Large brown lesions (macules) on your face, back of hands, arms, chest and upper back (solar lentigines, or liver spots)
  • White macules on the lower legs and arms

Actinic keratoses

Also known as solar keratoses, actinic keratoses appear as rough, scaly patches in sun-exposed areas. They vary in color from whitish, pink or flesh-colored to brown or dark brown patches. They're most commonly found on the face, ears, lower arms and backs of the hands of fair-skinned people whose skin has been damaged by the sun. Actinic keratoses are considered precancerous, because many evolve into skin cancer.

Skin cancer

Sun exposure that's intense enough to cause sunburn can also damage the DNA of skin cells. This damage sometimes leads to skin cancer. Skin cancer develops mainly on areas of skin exposed most to sunlight, including your scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms and hands, and on the legs, especially in women.

Some types of skin cancer appear as a small growth or as a sore that bleeds easily, crusts over, heals and then reopens. In the case of melanoma, an existing mole may change or a new, suspicious-looking mole may develop. Other types of melanoma develop in areas of long-term sun exposure and start as dark flat spots that slowly darken and enlarge, known as lentigo maligna.

See your doctor if you notice a new skin growth, a bothersome change in your skin, a change in the appearance or texture of a mole, or a sore that doesn't heal.

Eye damage

The sun can also burn your eyes. UV light damages the retina, a thin layer of tissue that lines the back inner wall of your eye. Burning your eyes can also damage the lens, a clear structure inside your eye that changes shape to help focus objects. This can lead to progressive clouding of the lens (cataracts).

Preparing for your appointment

You're likely to first see your family doctor or primary care doctor. Before you go to your appointment, make a list of all medications that you're taking — including vitamins, herbs and over-the-counter drugs — as some medications increase your sensitivity to UV radiation.

For sunburn, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • Do I need prescription medication, or can I use over-the-counter medications to treat the condition?
  • How soon after I begin treatment can I expect improvement?
  • What skin care routines do you recommend while the sunburn heals?
  • What suspicious changes in my skin should I look for?

If your doctor notices any skin abnormalities, such as lesions or suspicious moles, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin diseases (dermatologist) for further evaluation.

What you can do in the meantime

While waiting for your appointment, these home remedies may reduce your pain and discomfort:

  • Take an anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others).
  • Apply cold compresses to the affected skin, or take a cool bath or shower.
  • Apply an aloe vera or after-sun lotion to your skin to decrease pain and swelling.