Every Australian knows that sun and sunburn go hand-in-hand with our fantastic climates. Even the most vigilant can catch a little too much sun on a hot day, and even the most careful have been sunburnt to a point where medical intervention was considered. Almost every adult Australian has been moderately to severely sunburnt in their lifetime, even though we are taught the concept of sun protection from a young age, and we all know excessive sun damage to our skin can result in melanoma. Australia has the highest rate of melanoma in the world for men and women and two out of every three will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70. In 2012, 399 Victorians died from skin cancer, a number greater than those killed on the roads!
A sunburn is a form of radiation burn that results from overexposure to UV (ultraviolet) radiation, usually from the sun. It is the skin’s reaction to too much sunlight and by the time signs and symptoms occur, the skin damage has already occurred and is irreversible.
Dangers of Sunburn
Excessive UV radiation exposure is the leading cause of cancerous and non-cancerous skin tumours. Long term effects of repeated sunburn include premature wrinkling of skin and an increased risk of skin cancer, including melanoma. The danger is out there even on cool, cloudy days, when you cannot see or feel the UV radiation on your skin. Ironically however, moderate sun tanning without burning can prevent subsequent sunburn as it increases the amount of melanin (a skin protectant pigment) that is the skins natural defence against overexposure!
The degree of sunburn can be mild to severe and can start to appear in as little as 15 minutes, but usually takes 2-6 hours. The pain is at it’s worst for the first 24 to 72 hours, occasionally followed by peeling. Minor sunburn presents with not a lot more than slight redness and tenderness. In more severe cases, blistering and severe pain can occur and require medical attention.
Typical signs and symptoms of sunburn include:
- heat coming off burn (caused by the concentration of blood to the area to kick-start the healing process)
It is tempting to treat kids with sunburn by placing them in a cool bath or under the air conditioner, but this is not recommended by most doctors. Very young children cannot thermo-regulate (keep their body temperature normal) as well as adults, and when they have sunburn they may feel hot but are not ‘burning up’. Unless your child has a temperature with their sunburn (test with a thermometer), just cool them down gently with a cool washcloth or an icecream.
Peeling Sunburnt Skin
Some think it’s the best bit, some are completely grossed out by it, but sunburnt skin usually turns to dead skin and will eventually peel off. There are no creams or lotions to prevent this natural healing process, but their are a couple of things to remember:
- Resist the temptation and don’t pick!
- Remove detached skin carefully and slowly. Don’t rip the skin off as you may take off excess layers
- Apply antiseptic cream once your skin has peeled off to reduce risk of infection
Reduce the Risk
Use the Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide guidelines to reduce sunburn risk.
- Slip – on sun-protective clothing.
- Slop – on SPF 30+ broad spectrum, water resistant sunscreen
- Slap – on a hat, broad-brimmed that protects head, neck, face and ears
- Seek – shade in the heat of the day
- Slide – on UV protection sunglasses
Fabric is always a better protection than sunscreen in protecting from UV rays.
Treatment of Sunburn
The body needs time to heal and there is no cure for sunburn other than time and patience. Some treatments to help manage the symptoms of sunburn include:
- Drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration
- Gently applying cool compresses
- Choose spray-on chemist remedies as opposed to rub-in creams
- Don’t pop blisters, cover them with wound dressing
- Apply moisturiser to boost the moisture content of the skin
- Keep out of the sun until completely healed
- Avoid using soap when you shower or bathe
Few people realise how UV rays can affect our skin from below. UV rays travel in a direct line from the sun to earth and whilst humans, plants animals etc absorb these rays, a number of surfaces reflect them. These include water, sand, snow, concrete, metal/steel and tin, with white painted surfaces being the most highly reflective surfaces, bouncing back a huge 22% of a full dose of UV rays back up your body. It is just as important to protect our skin from these reflected UV rays from below as it is from above.
Children in particular are incredibly sensitive to the suns rays because their skin is thinner and more sensitive and are therefore susceptible to the damage UV radiation can cause. Those with moles, fair hair/skin and a family history of skin cancer tend to be even more vulnerable to the sun and those children who do get sunburnt are reported to be more likely to develop melanoma later in life. Keep reflective rays in mind when you park your pram or ask your older kids to wait somewhere for you, sun can burn from the bottom as well as from the top.