4 Steps to Treat Sunburn

4 Steps To Treat Sunburn

When it comes to sunburn we know that prevention is better than a cure and that we should avoid becoming sunburnt in the first place, but accidents happen, and sometimes we do end up sporting the lobster look.  It can be tricky to identify whether you or someone with you is becoming burnt, especially in bright conditions when the person could be hot and possibly a bit flushed anyway.  One way to tell if things are heading the wrong way is by pressing your finger on the skin.  Normally it should take 3 to 4 seconds for the colour to return when you remove your finger, but sunburnt skin will tend to return to red immediately. So what should we do if we or someone we know does get sunburnt?

A First Aiders 4 Tips for Sunburn

Sun burn is the same as any other burn caused by heat and the First Aid advice is simple.

Feet with obvious sunburn marks showing the shadow of sandals.
Sunburn can be more painful on limbs that are in contact with clothing, shoes or jewellery.

1. Remove the casualty from the heat source.

This means get them out of the sun! If this isn’t possible, at least apply sun block and cover them up in loose fitting clothes. Be aware that UV rays can still penetrate many fabrics so this may not be enough. The casualty will only get worse if they stay in the sun.

2. Cool the burn.

As First Aiders we tend to avoid lotions and potions, so like any heat burn, cool running water is the best way to cool the skin.  In the case of sunburn, which is often over a larger area, a cool shower or bath can be very effective.  Remember that swimming in the sea won’t really help unless you can do that in the shade!  If a cold shower or bath is unbearable, then tepid water is fine as long as you are still cooling the burn, rather than warming it up. Stay under the water until the heat has gone from the burn, this may take a long time, but patience is worth it.

The general first aid advice for burns is to run them under tepid water for AT LEAST 20 minutes. Running water is best as it draws the heat out of the skin. If you stop the water and the burnt area still feels warm or hot, you’ll need to keep it under the running water.

It’s also important to start the treatment as soon as you notice the hot red & burnt skin to help the skin recover and to prevent blisters or scar tissue forming. Recent studies have shown that even if treatment is delayed for between one to three hours, running the burn under cool running water is still beneficial, improving new skin growth and decreasing the amount of scar tissue.

A person drinking from a large water bottle with a sunset in the background.
The NHS recommends that we drink at least 1.2 litres of water a day just to keep us normally hydrated. This amount should increase on hot days or when we have sunburn as we sweat out a out of water trying to keep cool.

3. Rehydrate!

Check out our blog on dehydration for the best ways to rehydrate from the inside and moisturise the skin to rehydrate it from the outside. Dehydration can occur in any climate and is a function of inadequate fluid being taken on board to sustain the body.  Mild dehydration will present as a thirst and inability to concentrate, alongside fatigue and loss of performance, and can usually be easily cured by taking on appropriate fluids to rehydrate. Excessive dehydration can cause nausea, headaches, severe fatigue or Heat Stroke, which is a much more serious illness.   You can read more about heat stroke and sunstroke including what you should do to treat it, in our blog here.

Sunburn is a more serious illness in a small child or baby compared to an older child or adult.

4. Consider medical attention.

Size – Burns that are larger than 5% of the casualty’s surface area should be checked out in hospital.  The casualty’s palm of their hand is considered to be equal to 1% of their body surface area.  A burn across their shoulders may be more than 5%. This is important as 5% is the point where this level of burn will seriously impact on your health.

Children – Any baby or young child with sunburn should be seen by a medical professional. Children’s reactions to heat and cold can vary much more than ours and the impact of sunburn is much more serious in a young child or baby.

Illness – Seek medical help if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Your temperature is very high
  • You feel hot and shivery, tired, dizzy or nauseous
  • You have a headache or muscle cramps

Serious burns can lead to shock symptoms and become a medical emergency, so if in doubt, seeking medical attention is always safest.

More Serious Sunburn – important points to remember:

  • Any sunburn that is blistered or split should also go to hospital as it is a deeper, more serious burn that carries the additional risk of infection. 
  • Do not burst any blisters, and try and keep the area cool and moist with wet towels or similar on the way.
  • Do not remove or peel off any loose skin as this just opens up the area to infection. 
  • Do not apply ice or icepacks to the skin.
  • Do not wear tight fitting clothes on the burnt area.

Enjoy the summer and remember –  prevention is better than a cure, so make sure you use a good quality high factor sunscreen, cover up skin when its very hot and wear a hat.