All about sunburns!

Sunburn is no stranger to people living in South-East Asia. It happens when skin gets burned by ultraviolet (UV) light which is invisible to the human eye. The sun is the main source of UV light and by being under the sun for too long, it burns the skin. Sunburn can also occur on a cloudy day. That is because UV light penetrates clouds, unlike visible light.


 Complications associated with sunburns

Being in a tropical region, we get more sun than we bargain for. So why is it important to avoid getting sunburns?

Individuals who get more sunburns are also at higher risks of getting the following:

  • Skin changes associated with aging such as wrinkles
  • Eye disease known as “cataracts” which will cause sight problems
  • Skin cancer


 Risk factors for sunburn

People with light-coloured hair or pale skin are more likely to get sunburns. This also happens when individuals are at places of high altitude or beaches as the UV light is more intense. There are also and certain medical conditions and side-effects of certain medications such as antibiotics that causes individuals to get sunburn more easily.


 Symptoms of Sunburn

Symptoms of sunburns typically develop 3 to 5 hours after heavy exposure to the sun. Mild to moderate symptoms include pain and the skin feels hot when touched. The skin becomes red and will be worst around 12-24 hours before fading away over a period of about 3 days.

In severe cases, blisters may appear along with severe pain. The area may be swollen and the individual may develop fever. In such cases, it is wise to seek medical attention.


 Treatment of sunburn

The treatment of sunburn is mainly symptomatic. That is to say, only the symptoms are treated to relieve the individual of pain or discomfort. Treatment itself does not shorten the duration of the symptoms.

For pain, cold compresses may be applied to area of burns and pain-killers such as paracetamol (Panadol®) may be useful as well. There are also lotions or sprays with aloe-vera or mild numbing agents that are marketed for sunburns. These products also help relieve pain and discomfort at the site of sunburns.

It is also a good idea to stay out of the sun and give the sunburnt area a chance to heal.


 Prevention of sunburns

Sunburns may be avoided in a variety of ways. The most effective method is by staying out of the sun, especially when it is the strongest, which is around 10 am to 4 pm. If going under the sun is unavoidable, then using an umbrella or wearing long sleeve clothes would be helpful.

Furthermore, sunscreens may be applied to areas of the body not covered by clothes. Choose a sunscreen that has a SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of more than 30 that confers protection against both types of UV light (UVA and UVB).

Wearing sunglasses is also recommended as it prevents the formation of cataracts.



  1. Fitzpatrick, T., Johnson, R., Saavedra, A. and Wolff, K. (2013). Fitzpatrick’s color atlas and synopsis of clinical dermatology. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Education LLC.
  2. com. (2016). Patient education: Sunburn (The Basics). [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Sep. 2017].
  3. Image Credit:
Pou Wee Gan
Pou Wee Gan

M.Pharm, MBBS, BCPS, R.Ph

A pharmacist first, then a medical doctor. An avid tea drinker and an occasional poet.

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