So, you forgot to put on sunscreen and fell asleep in your lawn chair. The bad news is that you’re certainly in for some red skin and pain. The good news is that the pain won’t last forever. A sunburn is skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun.
The symptoms of sunburn appear within a couple hours after sun exposure. However, the full effects of the skin damage may take a full 24 hours to appear. Long-term damage, such as increased risk for skin cancers, can take years to appear. Learn about what to expect as your body works to remove and repair the damaged skin.
How long a sunburn lasts depends on its severity.
- Mild sunburns usually come with redness and some pain, which can last anywhere from three to five days. Your skin may also peel a bit towards the last couple of days as your skin regenerates.
- Moderate sunburns are typically more painful. The skin will be red, swollen, and hot to the touch. Moderate sunburns typically take about a week to heal completely. The skin may then continue to peel for a few more days.
- Severe sunburns sometimes require a visit to a doctor or even a hospital. You’ll have painful blistering and very red skin. It can take up to two weeks to fully recover. If you don’t end up in the hospital, you’ll likely have to stay home and rest to recover from a severe burn.
There are a number of factors that might affect how long your sunburn symptoms last. Not everyone reacts the same way to sun exposure. In general, the following factors make people more susceptible to severe sunburns that generally take longer to heal:
- fair or light skin
- freckles or red or fair hair
- going outside between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. (when the sun’s rays are most intense)
- high altitudes
- ozone holes
- living or visiting places near the equator
- tanning beds
- taking certain drugs that make you more susceptible to burns (photosensitizing medications)
Your redness will typically start showing up about two to six hours after sun exposure. The redness will hit a peak after around 24 hours and then will then subside over the next day or two. The redness from more severe burns may take a bit longer.
Pain from a sunburn usually starts within six hours and peaks around 24 hours. Pain will usually subside after 48 hours. You can reduce pain with over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Aleve) or aspirin. Applying cool compresses to the skin may also offer some relief.
Swelling may persist for up to two days or longer for severe burns. You can take anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or use a corticosteroid cream to help reduce swelling.
Blisters from a moderate to severe burn start to show up between six and 24 hours after UV exposure, but sometimes can take a couple days to show up on the skin. Since blisters are usually the sign of a moderate or severe burn, they might persist for up to a week.
If you do get blisters, don’t break them. Your body made these blisters in order to protect your skin and allow it to heal, so breaking them will slow down the healing process. It also increases your risk of infection. If blisters break on their own, clean the area with mild soap and water and cover the area with a wet dressing. Keep the blisters out of the sun to help expedite healing.
After you’ve been burned, the skin will normally start to flake and peel after about three days. Once peeling starts, it can last for several days. In general, peeling will stop when the skin is fully healed. For a mild to moderate burn, that should be within seven days, but small amounts of peeling can occur for several weeks.
Drink plenty of water to help your skin heal more quickly. Be gentle when removing dead skin cells from peeling skin. Don’t pull or exfoliate — the skin will shed by itself. Your new skin is delicate and more susceptible to irritation. Try taking a warm bath to help loosen the dead cells. Moisturizing skin is helpful too, as long as the moisturizer doesn’t sting. Try plain petroleum jelly if needed. Never vigorously pull or pick at peeling skin.
A rash can develop within six hours of sun exposure, and it may last for up to three days depending on the severity of your burn. Apply a cool compress and aloe vera gel to help soothe the skin and make your rash go away faster.
Despite its name, sun poisoning doesn’t mean you’ve been poisoned. Sun poisoning, also called sun rash, is the name for a more severe type of sunburn. Symptoms include:
- rapid pulse
If you have sun poisoning, see your doctor for treatment. For severe cases, sun poisoning may take 10 days or even a few weeks to resolve.
Call a doctor right away if you get a fever along with your sunburn. You’ll need to watch out for signs of shock, dehydration, or heat exhaustion. Look out for the following symptoms:
- feeling faint
- rapid pulse
- extreme thirst
- no urine output
- nausea or vomiting
- blisters that cover a large portion of your body
- signs of an infection in the blisters, such as pus, swelling, and tenderness
Keep in mind that while the symptoms of a sunburn are temporary, the damage to your skin and DNA is permanent. Long-term effects include premature aging, wrinkles, sun spots, and skin cancer. It only takes one bad sunburn to make a negative impact. Protect your skin with sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing whenever you go outside.