How to treat sunburn

If you return from a long sunny ride looking like a lobster, follow GP and cyclist Andy Ward’s advice…

Failed to prevent it?

As with most things, prevention is better than cure, and this especially applies to sunburn, with skin cancers and premature aging associated with excess sun exposure. But what should you do if you’ve managed to get burnt?

Assess it

The vast majority of sunburn is superficial: the skin is red and painful but not blistered. More severe sunburn can be classified as partial thickness (superficial dermal). The affected skin is painful and appears pale pink with blistering. Depending on the extent, this can be more serious. If more than 10 per cent of the body surface area in adults or five per cent in children is affected by severe sunburn, medical assessment is required. Surface area can be estimated in adults using the ‘rule of nines’: nine per cent each for the head and each upper limb, 18 per cent for each lower limb, front of trunk and back of trunk. Certain co-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, dehydration or heat-related illness are also cause for concern.

Treat it

Mild sunburn settles on its own with the peak of discomfort normally occurring at 24 hours after exposure. It is important to maintain hydration. Cool showers, cold compresses moisturizing cream and paracetamol or ibuprofen can help relieve symptoms. There is some evidence (from the manufacturers) that Voltarol Emugel can reduce pain and redness.

For areas of more severe burn, which don’t require medical assessment, leave blisters intact to prevent infection. Don’t apply moisturisers and use a non-adhesive dressing if a blister has burst – changing regularly to check for infection. Burns that are not settling should be seen by a doctor sooner rather than later.

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