We are often bombarded with messages about the dangers of sun exposure. And rightly so. With our high rate of skin cancer (melanoma in particular) it is often hard to fathom why we go out into the sun at all – especially during the summer months as we get enough vitamin D by doing outdoor activities outside of peak Ultraviolet Index (UVI) times.
Hundreds of people die of skin cancer every year and it is by far the most common form of cancer in this country. Our unique environment means we are particularly vulnerable to ultraviolet rays which cause sunburn. All types of sunburn, whether serious or mild, can cause permanent and irreversible skin damage and can lay the groundwork for skin cancer in later life.
Sunburn occurs when living tissue, like your skin, is overexposed to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) causing it to change in colour from slightly pink to severely red or purple. Sunburn can appear from one to six hours after exposure and the skin feels hot to the touch. Severe sunburn may cause blistered skin and even a fever, nausea and dehydration. Your eyes may also be painful or irritated due to overexposure to UVR.
The best way to prevent sunburn is to use sun protection. It is particularly important to use sun protectionfrom the start of September until the end of March, especially between 11am and 4pm. Sunscreen is one type of sun protection - ask your community pharmacist which sunscreen is best for you. You should also always wear protective clothing during this period, as well as a hat and sunglasses. In addition, try to keep in the shade whenever possible.
However, if you have the misfortune of getting sunburnt there are a number of ways you can help treat the condition:
- Use cold compresses on the burnt areas, for example a wet, cold towel.
- Ask your community pharmacist for topical treatments to manage the pain and heat, or a moisturising cream for dry skin.
- If blistering occurs, do not burst them as you may get an infection. Instead cover with a gauze or a bandage. If your blisters do burst, see your community pharmacist for treatment options such as antiseptic ointment or hydrocortisone cream. .
- If you are in pain you can take aspirin, paracetamol or ibuprofen. Aspirin is not recommended for children. Ensure you follow the directions carefully.
- Avoid alcohol and drink plenty of water to help rehydrate your body.
If the sunburn is severe, your eyes are extremely painful, or you have blisters accompanied by a fever or nausea, see your community pharmacist or doctor immediately. And remember that there is no such thing as a “safe” tan – any change in the colour of the skin is a sign that damage has taken place.