10 Common Symptoms of Sunburn

Whether you’ve ventured into the beer garden without your sunscreen on or you’re not sure if it’s time to get the kids out of the pool and into the shade, judging how long it takes to get sunburnt can be difficult. Many symptoms don’t show up until after the damage is already done, so it’s common to think you’ve been sensible, only to find that your nose is redder than a ripe cherry when you look in the mirror at home.  

Although it can take a couple of hours, or even days, to see the full extent of your sunburn, there are a few common symptoms of sunburn you can look out for.

Our guide to the most common symptoms is designed to make it easier for you to judge when it’s time to move into the shade. The best way to protect against sunburn is always prevention, so keep covered up, stay hydrated, and always wear sunscreen[1].

Skin Redness 

One of the first signs that indicates you might be getting sunburnt is your skin beginning to turn pink or red in colour. If your exposed skin has started to change colour whilst you’re still in the sun, this usually indicates that it is getting damaged[2]. Even if you think that your skin is turning pink because of the heat, it’s best to move into the shade or cover up with clothing that has a tight weave to make sure you’re protected. Bear in mind that any exposed part of your body can burn, including your earlobes and scalp, so it’s important to protect all exposed areas of skin.

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Warm to Touch

This is an easy symptom to ignore because the sun often makes you feel warm, but if the skin is hot to the touch, especially once you’ve moved out of the sun, it may be sunburnt. If you are worried about your children getting burnt, this can be a good marker of when they should move out of the sun and cool down. Even areas that have been covered with clothing can burn if the clothing has a loose weave that lets UV light through, so if your skin starts to feel hot to the touch it is a good idea to sit in the shade.

Pain or Tenderness 

If your skin feels painful or tender, or your children complain of pain, this can easily be an indication that the skin is becoming sunburnt. When the skin feels painful or tender, it is important to get out of the sun as soon as possible by either moving into a shady area or going indoors. Reapplying sunscreen is not an effective way to treat skin that has already become painful, as it is already damaged. You should cover up and keep cool in order to minimise the damage caused by the sun’s harmful UV rays. 

Itching 

Itching usually takes a little longer to appear than other sunburn symptoms, but it can be one of the worst. Sunburn damages the surface layer of your skin, which is full of nerve fibres that are responsible for itching. When your skin gets sunburnt, these nerves fire furiously until the skin is healing, leading to an irritating and persistent itch. A soothing after sun lotion is often the best way to deal with this symptom.

Swelling

When you get burnt, your body increases blood flow to the area to help it heal, which results in your skin becoming red and swollen. This can be as painful and uncomfortable as it is unsightly. You can cope with swelling from sunburn by taking ibuprofen for the pain and to reduce inflammation. A cold compress or cool shower can also help ease the pain of swollen, sunburnt skin. 

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Rash 

Some people can develop a rash from exposure to the sun, especially if the skin hasn’t been used to sun exposure, such as at the start of summer. It can appear as small, red or pink raised bumps on the skin and often feels itchy. Usually, this rash will clear up within a few days as long as you avoid sun exposure. If you do develop a rash, it is important to move out of the sun or cover up straight away.  

Small Blisters

Small blisters developing on the skin is usually a sign that you or your child are being quite severely burnt by the sun. If small blisters filled with clear fluid start to appear on the skin, you should cover up and move out of the sun. You should not pop the blisters, just leave them to heal naturally and keep them protected from further sun exposure. 

Gritty Eyes 

Many people do not realise that your eyes can become sunburnt, but they are actually very sensitive to the effects of UV radiation[3]. If your eyes start to feel painful or gritty during sun exposure, you should cover them up with UV protective sunglasses or move out of the sun. You should make sure that you use sunglasses to protect yourself and your children from the damaging effects of sun exposure, especially in bright sunlight. 

Headache 

Developing a headache in the sun can be a sign that you are getting dehydrated, as well as being a symptom of sunburn. If you or your child get a headache in the sun, you should move into the shade and make sure to drink lots of water. Being very hot or being exposed to the sun for long periods of time can lead to conditions like heat exhaustion and heatstroke, which headaches can be an early sign of[4].

Fever and Chills

Fever, chills and a high temperature are sunburn symptoms that are important not to ignore. They indicate that a severe sunburn has occurred, and can even mean that a person has developed a serious condition such as heatstroke. If someone has these symptoms, you should get them to lie down in a cool place, remove any unnecessary clothing, cool their skin, and get them to drink fluids. If they do not respond to treatment after 30 minutes they may require medical help.

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[1] Cancer Research UK. When do I need to protect myself? [Internet] [updated 2014 Feb 17; cited 2015 Apr 20]. Available from: http://sunsmart.org.uk/ UV-the-sun-and-skincancer/when-do-i-need-to-protect-myself/

[2] NHS. Sunburn [Internet] [updated 2017 April 28; cited 2017 05 10]. Available from: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Sunburn/Pages/Introduction.aspx

[3] Mayo Clinic. Sunburn Symptoms [Internet] [updated 2014 May 01; cited 2017 May 10]. Available from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sunburn/basics/symptoms/con-20031065

[4] NHS. Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke [Internet] [Updated 2015 06 11; cited 2017 05 10]. Available from: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Heat-exhaustion-and-heatstroke/Pages/Introduction.aspx