Easing the pain of a sunburn

Spending Labor Day Weekend Outside: How to Ease the Pain of a Sunburn

No one ever heads out for a day of fun meaning to get sunburned. Unfortunately, even the most attentive people can come home with a little bit of redness on their face, shoulders, neck, arms, or other exposed skin. And a few hours later, that “little bit of sun” has morphed into a full-blown sunburn that is hot to the touch, dark red, and worst of all, very painful.

Sunburn Symptoms

Sunburns are considered dangerous because of what they can cause long term. More than five sunburns in your entire life can double your chances of developing melanoma, and they can also lead to prematurely aging skin and unattractive dark spots. The immediate symptoms of a sunburn include:

  • Redness of the skin
  • Painful or tender areas that later become itchy
  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Headache
  • Fever and chills
  • Fatigue

If you’ve ever come home after a long day of playing at the beach or in a pool, and you thought to yourself that the water really wore you out, it was more than likely the sun that made you feel so tired. Overexposure to UV rays makes our immune systems weaker, which is what causes feelings of fatigue.

While prevention is the absolute best way to guard against the more serious side effects of a sunburn, there are steps you can take after you get one to treat the pain. Here are five ways that you can soothe a painful sunburn until it fades away.

1. Traditional Methods

Traditional advice for dealing with the pain of a sunburn says to cool your skin off as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more inflamed the area will become, which only leads to more pain. Basically, when you get a sunburn, the radiation from the UV light has damaged the DNA of your skin cells. Your body reacts by trying to repair the damage, sending a rush of blood to the area full of white blood cells. This is what causes the inflammation. By cooling the skin, you slow the sudden engorgement of new cells, which helps reduce pain.

In order to soothe this pain, traditional treatment tips include:

  • Cold compresses applied directly to the skin. It’s important to err on the side of “cool” rather than too cold, because this can agitate the skin even more.
  • Taking a cool bath. Try adding Epsom salt to help draw out the excess fluids faster. You may try a cool shower as well, but many people find that the water beating down on their burnt skin doesn’t feel very good. Don’t substitute the bath for a soak in the pool, unless your pool is covered or indoors! Water that is in the sun, no matter the temperature, can reflect sunlight, making your sunburn even worse.
  • Keeping your room or house cooler by lowering the air conditioning, or aiming a fan at yourself. If you wake up due to pain in the night, a fan blowing on you may help you get some much-needed rest.
  • Using an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to reduce the feelings of pain, and later, the itching.
  • Moisturizing right after you get out of a bath, while your skin is still damp. This works to soothe on a deeper level, as the moisturizer carries relief down into the skin’s layers.

It’s probable that you’ll have to use these methods multiple times throughout the entire time you are healing. After the initial rush of blood to the burnt area, the skin begins trying to expel excess liquid build-up, usually through blisters; later, the skin will peel as the damaged or dead cells are replaced with healthy new ones. All of these stages can lead to more pain or itching that can be dealt with by keeping the skin cool.

2. Treat Your Sunburn from the Inside

Of course, if you really want to get rid of the pain sooner, you need to consider how you can help your body heal faster. One of the most important things to understand about the body in the face of any kind of illness or injury is the importance of hydration. When the body attempts to heal itself, nutrients need a method of delivery to the site of the injury. One of those ways is through your blood; another is water. Considering that the blood is made up of 92% water, the two could really be considered the same thing.

The problem with a sunburn and hydration is two-fold: first, the heat of the sun causes you to sweat out a lot of water, becoming dehydrations. Second, as your body sends blood to the sunburn to treat it, you need even more water than usual to facilitate this process. So you can see that staying hydrated is a very important part of healing a sunburn, and you are starting out at a disadvantage because the sun has dehydrated you.

In addition to drinking plenty of water, you can also try to cool yourself off from the inside by drinking cooling peppermint tea. While there is no real proof that eating cold foods, like ice cream, can help heal your sunburn, they can certainly make you feel cooler. Your mental perception is just as important in making yourself feel better.

There are also several vitamins that you can take to help your body heal faster. Vitamins E, A and D are all great for treating sunburns. In addition to choosing a moisturizer that adds these vitamins back to the surface of your skin, taking supplements can speed the process from the inside.

3. DIY Pain Treatment

There are many home-made treatments that have been used for generations to treat sunburns. You may have had one or more of these remedies applied to you as a child; if you didn’t, your parents or grandparents almost certainly did. While some of these remedies may sound a little odd, give them a try. There is more wisdom in old DIY pain management than you may know.

  • Add a cup of apple cider vinegar to your bath when you soak, or simply apply apple cider vinegar to the skin with a washcloth. It helps balance the pH of your skin, which makes it heal faster.
  • Add oatmeal to your bath for extra moisture. The more moisture your skin can get, the faster the nutrients and new cells can heal the damaged cells. Be careful not to clog your drain! Try making a satchel of oatmeal with cheesecloth, or even a new, clean sock, and soaking it in the tub till it creates a milky bath.
  • Add approximately two cups of baking soda to a bath, which can help ease itching and irritation.
  • Lavender and chamomile are both great additions to a bath or choose a moisturizer that uses these ingredients, to help soothe the pain.
  • Buttermilk was long used as a natural pain reliever for sunburns. Washing the skin with cool milk or buttermilk can create a sort of film over the skin that helps soothe the pain.
  • Place cool, wet teabags over your eyes if your eyebrows or eyelids were burnt, to help ease the pain.
  • Cucumbers are also great for soothing delicate skin around the eye, or you can mash them into a paste and apply to your entire face, or other sunburnt areas.
  • Believe it or not, applying a thin paste of mashed potatoes to your skin can help ease the pain. Boil potatoes in plain water, and mash them before spreading over the affected areas. The starch in potatoes helps draw out heat.
  • Witch hazel is another old folk remedy that can truly do wonders to speed the healing process. Apply decocted witch hazel to a compress and hold over the infected area.
  • If you don’t have blisters, apply a small amount of peppermint oil on the affected area for an immediate cooling sensation.

If you have already tried a cool bath, and you are still feeling a lot of pain from your sunburned area, these homemade remedies may be a great way to find some relief. Just be careful to always use cool, but not freezing cold, liquids with any of these treatments.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera has been used for thousands of years of human history to treat wounds of all sorts. This gel-like substance comes from the leaves of the aloe vera plant, which is a succulent that grows naturally in tropical climates.

Aloe vera has a very, unique pectin structure, which is part of what makes it so powerful when applied to wounds. The pectin in aloe vera acts as a binding agent for cells that are healing a sunburnt area, which helps these cells work together faster in order to heal. A study performed at Texas A&M showed that a wound that took three weeks to heal in an untreated patient, took only two weeks to heal with a patient who used aloe vera to treat the pain.

The gel is also naturally cooling, which feels very good when applied to areas of sunburned skin. There are dozens of aloe vera products in supermarkets and drug stores that can be used, but you can also simply use the gel straight from the leaves of the plant. Aloe vera plants are very easy to grow, requiring little attention, and all you have to do is snip off a small amount of the leaf and squeeze out the gel to apply to any type of wound or burn.

Aloe vera can also be taken internally. For some time a few years ago, it was believed to help patients with AIDS or cancer and became a popular alternative medicine. While no science supports the idea that aloe vera can help with diseases like these, it’s very clear that it does support the healing of wounds and burns.

Treatment for Serious Symptoms

Treating the typical pain that comes from getting too much sun should be easy using the tips described above. But how do you go about healing your body when the pain develops into something more severe? Depending on how long you were in the sun, how fair your skin is and how healthy you were when you got too much UV exposure, your burn may go beyond a painful red area. You may also see blisters, swelling, fever, headaches, and more.

If you experience a fever with your sunburn, you’ll probably notice it first because you’ll feel chilled. Your instinct will be to warm up, but this can actually slow down the healing taking place under your skin’s upper layer. The best way to treat this is to take an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help the fever go down. Acetaminophen can also help reduce the swelling that you may experience.

If you have blisters from your sunburn, it’s best to not attempt to open them in any way. This can lead to infection, which will make your pain and your sunburn far worse. Instead, you should carefully prick a small hole with a needle, and gently squeeze out the excess liquid. This will help your skin shed the excess liquid underneath the top layer faster, which will speed the healing process.

If you experience a headache that simply won’t go away, dizziness, confusion, or any changes in your vision (like black spots or “tunnel vision”), you may need to see a doctor. There is a higher step from a sunburn called sun poisoning, which can lead to heat-stroke-like symptoms. In this event, your doctor will likely prescribe a steroid cream to assist your skin in healing, and they may also use an IV to rehydrate your body quickly.

Don’t forget that with any of these tips, it’s important to get some rest, and to stay out of the sun until you are totally healed. Your skin is more susceptible to getting another sunburn when your immune system is busy healing the first one. If you must go outside, be sure you use excessive amount sunscreen, cover your skin in breathable, UV-blocking clothing, wear a wide-brimmed hat and use sunglasses.

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