Sunburn is the result of severe over-exposure of the skin to UV radiation, particularly UVB. It is an indication of severe damage to the skin and is definitely to be avoided; burning is certainly not necessary for developing a tan.

Typical symptoms include:

  • reddening of the skin, often accompanied by tenderness and a feeling of heat.
  • pain, usually associated with touching or rubbing of the damaged skin; the severity of pain is generally proportional to the severity of exposure.
  • the skin may swell, blister and/or peel for several days as the damaged skin cells are shed and replaced.

In severe cases, victims may also suffer symptoms of severe dehydration (hyperthermia): fever, nausea, headaches, vomiting, chills, dizziness, rapid pulse, rapid breathing, shock and even loss of consciousness. Such symptoms may well require emergency treatment, and the pain can be sufficiently intense to be debilitating and necessitate hospitalization.

In strong sun, sunburn can occur in as little as 15 minutes, but the symptoms typically take longer to appear. Reddening of the skin can appear after about 30 minutes, but typically takes a few hours to fully develop; pain usually reaches its peak a day or two after exposure; and the burn continues to develop for up to 3 days. Peeling of the skin then often follows for several days after that.

Waiting for the early signs of sunburn to develop before taking action to avoid further sun exposure is therefore not a good idea: sunburn will already be well under way, and is likely to be severe.

The number of incidents of sunburn, especially early in life, is also strongly linked to increased risk of melanoma skin cancers: the more times a person burns, the greater the risk of cancer developing later in life.

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