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Got a bad sunburn? Here's what to do, according to an expert

Women sunbathe in Miami Beach, Fla., on May 9, 2012. (J Pat Carter / AP Photo) Women sunbathe in Miami Beach, Fla., on May 9, 2012. (J Pat Carter / AP Photo)
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Summer isn't an entirely carefree season of barbecues, lounging around the pool or beach, and road trips. As more people spend time outdoors to enjoy the pleasant weather, exposure to the sun can be “very harmful.”

Dermatologists warn that exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer over time, as well as sunburn in the short term.

"Having a sunburn is not fun --- it is very harmful, " Dr. Harvey Lui, a dermatologist and professor of dermatology and skin science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said in a video interview with CTVNews.ca. Lui likens sunburn to getting scalded by an oven. "It's not comfortable. It actually damages the skin. ... It's not a good idea to burn your skin. That's trauma."

Suffering one bad sunburn isn't something to take lightly.

"In fact, if you have one bad sunburn in your life -- even just one bad sunburn – that can actually double your risk of developing skin cancer, melanoma, sometime in the future," Lui said.

When the sun's powerful ultraviolet rays reach the skin, it can cause damage to the DNA molecules, setting up the skin to develop abnormal cells and potentially skin cancer, he explained.

Tans, for example, indicate skin damage from ultraviolet rays, Lui said.

"The tan is your body's reaction to the exposure to the ultraviolet rays," he said. "It is saying, 'Hey, I don't like all this ultraviolet light that's hitting my skin. So I'm gonna darken my skin to try to filter out some of that ultraviolet light."

Sunburns are caused by ultraviolet light not only from the sun but also artificial light from tanning beds, doctors warn.

Sunburn symptoms

A sunburn is inflamed, painful skin that often appears within a few hours after being outdoors for a long period of time, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The following are symptoms of sunburn:

  • Although it can be harder to detect on darker skin, on white skin it appears pink or red.
  • The skin feels warm.
  • You can feel pain, tenderness, itching and swelling.
  • Small blisters may appear.
  • In severe cases, you may have a headache, fever, nausea and fatigue.
  • Eyes may feel painful or gritty.
  • See your doctor if you have severe symptoms, such as large blisters and infection.

Treating sunburns

Although sunburns can take a few days to heal, there are ways to help the skin heal and make it less uncomfortable.

If you get a sunburn, use towels soaked in cold water to cool down your skin, Lui recommends.

Dr. Linda Xing, a dermatologist who mainly treats facial skin cancers in Oakville, Ont., says over-the-counter products such as aloe and ointments can also help soothe sunburned skin.

If it's still uncomfortable, you can take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication like Ibuprofen to help deal with the inflammation, Lui added. "If it's very, very severe, you might need to seek a health-care professional who might apply or might prescribe for you a topical corticosteroid product to help deal with the inflammation," he said.

Sunburns can cause the body to shed damaged skin as it heals. Xing recommends lightweight moisturizers to rehydrate the skin and boost the skin barrier.

"You wanna avoid things like really thick Vaseline, or keeping thick layers of any skin-care products or even clothing that traps the heat in," she said.

Preventing sunburns

Dermatologists recommend doing the following to avoid problems and discomfort caused by sunburns, even during cool and cloudy days:

  • Wear sunscreen with at least SPF 30.
  • Seek the shade when you're outdoors.
  • Wear sunglasses, clothing with UV protection or clothing that covers more of your skin. (Loose-weave clothing can still allow UV light through, the Mayo Clinic notes.)
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim.
  • Avoid going outside during the hours when the sun is its most intense between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"If you do all those things, then you can really decrease your risk of developing skin cancer, premature aging of the skin, tanning and hyperpigmentation and sunburns," Lui said.

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