Anyone who has ever suffered from sunburn knows that the skin reddens, itches and can hurt unpleasantly. After a while the skin begins to peel. So much for descriptions but what is sunburn from a medical point of view? These and various other questions, including how sunburn can be prevented as well as what effects it can have on babies and children are answered below.

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is medically referred to as dermatitis solaris and is UV induced burning of the skin. Severity can range from I to II. Symptoms appear within one to six hours after sunbathing and may intensify within the first 12 to 24 hours. Once a peak has been reached, it takes between three to seven days for the sunburn to heal.

Sunburn is caused by the biological effects of skin-damaging short-wave ultraviolet radiation ranging from 280 nm to 320 nm. Light radiation in this spectral range is called UV-B radiation, is very energy-intensive and can cause damage to DNA in the epidermal cells. UV-A radiation reaches deeper and penetrates to dermal and collagen structures. Although UV-A radiation is not as harmful as UV-B radiation it can still, in high doses, cause DNA damage and sunburn. Furthermore it can lead to skin cancer.

Sunburn itself is caused by an inflammatory process that takes place within the subcutis (hypodermis). The inflammatory process is triggered by intense UV-B or UV-A radiation resulting in the damaged epidermis. This damage then releases messenger substances that trigger inflammation and dilate the blood vessels. In turn this makes the ‘burnt’ skin appear red. As a consequence, fluid then enters the surrounding tissue and blisters form.

Sunburn symptoms. What is likely to happen?

The symptoms range from itching to sensations of heat and pain. Oedema and blistering may also occur and facial sunburn can lead to keratis solaris (inflammation of the cornea) and conjunctivitis (pinkeye). In addition to the symptoms described, systemic complaints may occur. If larger areas of the skin become burnt, fever, headache and a general feeling of weakness may develop. Mild sunburn normally heals without complications and without scarring. Occasionally ‘scaling’ of the skin follows. It is possible that sunburn leads to a reversible darkening of the skin once healed. If the sunburn is severe, pale scars may appear after healing.

What helps against sunburn?

There are various ways to treat sunburn, depending on its severity. The affected area should be cooled, for example with cold compresses or lotion containing anti-inflammatory ingredients. If the skin is severely burnt, a doctor should be consulted for treatment. If the whole body is suffering, steroids or non-steroidal painkillers should be taken.

What helps when sunburn is not severe?

A mild sunburn is best treated using a cooling, moisturizing lotion.

Sunscreen is an important preventive measure

A sun cream with a high protection factor (SPF) helps against sunburn. It makes sense to use a cream with a UV protection factor of 30 or higher that is quickly absorbed and waterproof. Internet portals and test institutes provide useful overviews of the benefits of individual sunscreens. Sunburn in the face, on babies or children, as well as recurrent sunburn in infants aged 0 to 6 can lead to malignant melanomas and should be avoided at all costs. It is always advisable to protect children and babies from sun exposure by covering them. This applies in particular to babies. To prevent conjunctival and corneal damage to the eyes, the latter should be protected from intense sunlight. Sunburn of the cornea can lead to photokeratitis (potato eye). What is more, damage to the eye caused by UV-B radiation can lead to glaucoma in elderly people.

A summary of sunburn

Mild sunburn is nothing to worry about and usually heals without problems. However serious burns caused by UV-B or UV-A radiation require medical attention. As a rule it is advisable to avoid frequent sunburn and to prevent it by using a high-protection factor sunscreen. Babies and children should be well protected from sun exposure and best of all wear clothing and a hat. Sunburn can also affect the eyes, causing damage to conjunctival or corneal tissue.