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What to do about sunburn

Did the sunshine catch you by surpise and without your sun screen? Did you stay out longer than intended or was the sun brighter and stronger than you realised? Whatever the reason, read on to see how to relieve the effects of over-exposure to the sun.

25 AUGUST 2010

We all know we should use sun screen lotion in the summer, but sometimes things don't go quite as they should. Maybe it was a cloudy day when you sat outside in a sleeveless top and didn't notice your skin turning colour; or the hours you spent on a shady terrace when you weren't aware the sun's rays were reflecting off the walls and parasols; or the day that turned out sunny after all and you couldn't be bothered to go back for your sun cream but stripped off anyway... Now, if you're lucky, your skin's only a coppery pink, or have you gone the whole way through to lobster?

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Clearly, the best thing is to avoid getting burnt in the first place – regular sunburn may produce serious consequences for your skin in the long term – but what's done is done, and what you need right now is a solution for the itching and the tenderness.

If the sunburn is serious, with cracking and eruption of the skin, or accompanied by severe heat exhaustion or sunstroke symptoms – headache, sweating, delerium, rapid pulse and breathing – you should seek medical assistance. In the case of light to moderate sunburn, though, – up to a grade one burn – there are simple steps you can take to alleviate the problem. The aim is to find a treatment that will repair the skin and help it regenerate, as well as calming the irritation and itching and relieving discomfort and the feeling of numbness.

  • To cool the area, apply cold compresses soaked in a solution of one dessertspoonful of white vinegar to a litre of water.
  • To soothe major itching or pain, use a topical cortico-steroid or a local anaesthetic which should calm the irritation. Aspirin is also good as it won't just relieve the pain, but will also have an anti-inflammatory effect.
  • When you shower, don't let the stream of water fall directly on the affected area. Although rigorous hygiene should be observed, avoid scented soaps, cosmetics, perfumes etc. Make sure the area is well moisturised to prevent scabs forming – after-sun products are fundamental – but remember you also need to drink plenty of water to replace lost fluids.
  • Avoid the sun while your skin heals! Make sure you don't forget the sun screen a second time; wear a hat and always carry a light wrap to cover up if the sun is brighter than you realised.

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