Sunburn Symptoms (Sun Damaged Skin)

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

It may feel great to go out in the sun when it’s warm outside, but sun exposure can have harmful effects on your skin and your health if you’re not careful. Contrary to what many people believe, you don’t have to lie out and tan for hours in order to get sunburn. It’s important to understand the possible effects of sun exposure in order to prevent sunburn and other potential health risks.


Sun exposure occurs any time that your skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. UV rays are actually an invisible form of radiation. When your skin is damaged by exposure to these rays, you get sunburned. Sunburn is more dangerous than it looks – in fact, sunburn occurs where UV rays have killed or damaged skin cells.


There are several signs and symptoms associated with sunburn. The following symptoms usually appear within a few hours of sun exposure and last for a few days:

  • A pink or reddish skin color
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Skin that is warm or hot to the touch
  • Swelling
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Fatigue

Even though the symptoms might start appearing soon after you’ve been in the sun, they may continue to worsen for up to a day or two afterwards. Once the sunburn starts to heal, the top layer of sun damaged skin usually starts to peel off. This sometimes leaves irregular, mottled colors on the layers skin underneath.

Causes And Risk Factors

Sun exposure is caused by the skin being exposed to UV light, either from sunlight or commercial tanning lamps. Sunburn is caused by too much exposure to UV rays, which leads to dead or damaged skin cells. The UV light accelerates the skin’s production of melanin, which leads to the darker pigment, which most people know as “tanned” skin. The tan skin is actually a defense mechanism produced by the body to help protect the skin from further damage due to sun exposure.

There are certain risk factors that increase an individual’s likelihood of getting sun damaged skin, including:

  • Skin type: The leading risk factor for sun damaged skin is skin color. Those with pale or fair skin often have skin that burns easily and doesn’t tan or tans minimally. This increases their chances for sunburn. Those with olive, brown or black skin tend to rarely burn and tan easily. However, even these individuals can get sun damaged skin from sun exposure – their risk is just not as great as those with lighter skin tones.
  • Location: If you live in a sunny or high-altitude climate, your risk for sunburn is increased because the sunlight is more intense in these locations.
  • Time of day: Similarly, going out in the sun during the time of day when sunlight is more intense (from 10 am to 4 pm) increases your risk of sunburn.
  • Indoor tanning: Using commercial tanning beds increases your risk for sun damaged skin since these machines use UV light.


Take the following steps to help prevent sun damaged skin:

  • Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. It’s important to remember to sunburn can happen on any part of exposed skin, including the earlobes, lips and scalp, so don’t forget to cover these areas. (For tips on using sunscreen, read How To Apply Sunscreen Properly.)
  • Wear sunglasses. Even your eyes can get sunburn, leaving them feeling painful and gritty.
  • Wear protective clothing. Make sure it covers as much skin as possible and don’t forget about hats or visors.
  • Don’t stay out too long in the sun. This is very important when the sun is strongest (10am to 4pm) or if you’re in a very sunny or high-altitude location.
  • Avoid using tanning beds and sunlamps. If you’re looking to get a nice tan, there are other alternatives. (To learn about these alternatives to tanning beds and sunlamps, read Safe Self-Tanning Tips For A Summer Look.)

One of the common misconceptions when sun damaged skin is that it only occurs in warm, sunny weather. On the contrary, sunburns can happen even in cold, snowy or cloudy weather as well. In fact, many people are more likely to get sunburn in these weather conditions because they are less likely to take steps to prevent sunburn, such as putting on sunscreen.

Also, remember that snow, ice, water, sand and other reflective surfaces can also exposure your skin to UV rays. In some cases, the sun damage from these sources can be just as severe as that from direct sunlight. Take steps to prevent sun damaged skin in these conditions.


Sunburns can usually be treated at home. Using oral and/or topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help to reduce swelling, pain and inflammation. In addition, topical corticosteroids can help relieve itching that often occurs while the skin is in the healing process.

(For more ways to treat sunburn, check out 5 Great Home Remedies For Sunburn.)


There are rare cases in which sunburn is so severe that it requires immediate medical attention. See a doctor right away if you experience any of the following symptoms with your sunburn:

  • Blisters covering a large portion of the body
  • Sunburn that hasn’t started to go away within a few days
  • High fever
  • Extreme or increasing pain
  • Confusion and headaches
  • Nausea
  • Chills
  • Increasing swelling
  • Yellow drainage from an open blister
  • Red streaks leading away from an open blister

Keep in mind that sun damaged skin can have serious effects in the long-term. In addition to an increased aging process, rough, scaly skin and eye damage, sunburns can cause skin cancer. It’s important to monitor your skin for any suspicious looking sunburns, color patterns or moles and to see a dermatologist if you find any.


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