A sunburn is reddening of the skin that occurs after you are exposed to the sun or other ultraviolet light.

Alternative Names

Burn from the sun


The first signs of a sunburn may not appear for a few hours. The full effect to your skin may not appear for 24 hours or longer. Possible symptoms include:

While the symptoms of sunburn are usually temporary (such as red skin that is painful to the touch), the skin damage is often permanent and can have serious long-term health effects, including skin cancer. By the time the skin starts to become painful and red, the damage has been done. The pain is worst between 6 and 48 hours after sun exposure.

In severe sunburns, blistering of the skin may occur. Deaths have resulted from acute sun exposure, and significant temporary disability is experienced by millions of sunburned people each year.


Sunburn results when the amount of exposure to the sun or other ultraviolet light source exceeds the ability of the body's protective pigment, melanin, to protect the skin. Sunburn in a very light-skinned person may occur in less than 15 minutes of midday sun exposure, while a dark-skinned person may tolerate the same exposure for hours.

Keep in mind:

Factors that make sunburn more likely:

Sun’s effect on skin

Watch this video about:
Sun’s effect on skin

Home Care

Sunburn is better prevented than treated. Effective sunscreens are available in a wide variety of strengths. Most doctors recommend a broad spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30.

Sunscreen should be generously applied. If out in the sun for a prolonged period of time during the day, wearing a hat and other protective clothing is recommended. Light clothing reflects the sun most effectively.

If you do get a sunburn:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call a health care provider immediately if you have a fever with sunburn or if there are signs of shock, heat exhaustion, dehydration, or other serious reaction. These signs include:

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The doctor will perform a physical exam and look at your skin. You may be asked questions about your medical history and current symptoms, including:



Kaplan LA. Exposure to Radiation from the Sun. In: Auerbach PS. Wilderness Medicine. 5th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2007: chap. 14.

Review Date: 5/13/2011
Reviewed By: Kevin Berman, MD, PhD, Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.  Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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