While the usual classifications for burns to the skin are first, second and third-degree burns, the worst the sun can usually inflict is a second-degree burn. That’s bad enough and something to avoid, but if there is any good news regarding sunburns, it’s that you can never get a third-degree sunburn.
The other bit of good news is most cases of sunburn are first-degree burns, those which may make parts of your body lobster red and at times painful but cause no immediate or permanent damage. One of the reasons people most often get nothing worse than a first-degree burn is they are smart enough to get out of the sun before it’s too late. This type of sunburn is normally one that can be avoided, although there are certainly certain circumstances where that may not always be the case.
There are several important differences between first and second-degree burns, whether the burn is caused by the sun or not.
A first-degree burn affects the epidermis, or outer layers of the skin, only. This type of a burn usually turns the skin pink or red and the affected area also becomes quite dry. A first-degree burn can still be painful but the pain tends to be tolerable, or at least tends to respond to remedies. Treating a first-degree burn often takes nothing more than running cold water on the affected area for a few minutes and applying a soothing cream. A first-degree burn usually heals in a week’s time or less. There are seldom any short-term complications from a first-degree burn but repeated episodes can over time increase the risk of developing skin cancer later in life. Repeated sunburns, or even deep tans, can also cause the skin to age more rapidly.
A second-degree burn extends beyond the epidermis into the superficial dermis where it can often damage the deeper tissue. The skin will redden and blisters will usually form. These blisters are normally clear but they can also be bloody at times. With this burn, the texture of the skin becomes moist rather than dry. It can be quite painful and usually takes several weeks to heal, with two weeks usually a minimum. These burns normally require medical treatment. The primary complications are scarring and a potential for local infections. There is also an enhanced risk of a later development of skin cancer.
Damage That Can Be Caused
If you’ve been out in the sun long enough to get a second-degree burn, you will have done some damage to yourself even though you may blame the sun. As noted, this burn affects the deeper layers of the skin and can do damage to the tissues that make up those deeper layers. Also as noted earlier, it can cause blisters to form that can potentially lead to infections or scarring. It can also damage nerve endings, of which there are usually many close to the skin.
The symptoms of this type of sunburn often go beyond simply feelings of pain and discomfort. How severe these symptoms are usually depends in part on how large an area has been burned. In the case of third-degree burns to the body, which the sun fortunately cannot cause, it’s a known fact that if a significant area of the skin on the body is affected it can be life-threatening. A bad sunburn is not all that likely to place you in a situation where your life is in danger, but it can still make you very ill.
Besides infection, it may cause you to feel nauseous, it may cause vomiting, and it may cause you to become dehydrated. It can sometimes cause you to run a fever and may even necessitate hospitalization to manage the symptoms.
While skin cancer does not occur immediately following prolonged exposure to the sun and, for that matter may never occur, there is one fact about sunburn that should give you some pause. Sunburn damages cells and a second-degree sunburn damages even more cells. A sunburned cell, when viewed under a microscope, bears a close resemblance to a cancer cell.
A cell that bears a close resemblance to a cancer cell may or may not become malignant, but something definitely happens to that cell and that is this:
- When a cell absorbs ultraviolet rays its deoxyribonucleic acid is damaged. Deoxyribonucleic acid is most commonly known as DNA.
- When a cell’s DNA is damaged, it can result in a proliferation of the damage, toxic damage to the cell as whole, the death of the cell, or its mutation. Proliferation and mutation are, of course, the two scary words in this equation.
- The deeper the sunburn, the greater the number of cells that are affected and the greater the risk becomes for a proliferation of cell damage and for an increasing number of mutations.
Two Burn Symptoms That Require Attention
The blisters that accompany this sunburn are always a potential source of infection, especially should they burst and expose raw, sensitive skin underneath or cause lesions in the skin which can provide an entryway for bacteria. The effects of a severe burn can also affect your body’s immune system, temporarily weakening it and making you more vulnerable to infection. In other words, that which can cause infection can, at the same time, place you at a higher risk of infection. Normally, when the skin becomes infected the accompanying inflammation causes it to become reddish. Since it is already red it can sometimes be difficult to determine if an infection is present or not. What you need to look for is any change in the color of the burnt area, especially if the color is purplish, there is a presence of swelling, there is a greenish discharge, there is a presence of pus or the presence of a fever.
Dehydration can occur due to a loss of fluids through the skin. This fluid loss seldom, if ever, will accompany first-degree sunburn but in the case of a second-degree burn, especially if a wide area of skin is involved, fluid loss can be substantial and a person experiencing a widespread burn can go into shock due to dehydration. If you’re becoming dehydrated, the symptoms you are most likely to encounter are thirst, weakness, infrequent urination, and sudden episodes of lightheadedness or dizziness.
5 Steps You Can Take when Treating Sunburn at Home
First and foremost, if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms of a burn, you should see a doctor rather than trying to treat the sunburn at home. There are a number of home remedies as well as procedures for self-treatment, but there are those times when a visit to your doctor’s office or even to the hospital may be in your best interest.
If you’re not certain whether your sunburn is a first or second-degree, you should assume the worst. There’s no need to panic and many of the symptoms may not show up before the next day, but if blisters appear, you feel ill, or a large part of your body is affected you should seek medical assistance. Also bear in mind that a second-degree burn is capable of scarring which is something you will definitely want to avoid.
1. Take a bath or shower to cool down. This will not only feel good but will also help your body cope with the effects of the sunburn. Lukewarm water or water that is pleasantly cool is much better than icy cold water which could actually make you feel worse. Also, if you shower rather than take a bath, use a gentle spray when possible. A hard spray designed to blast dirt away is the last thing your suddenly over-sensitive skin needs.
2. If the area of the burn is small such as on the face or the neck, apply a cool compress. This is in some ways preferable to a shower but can be impractical if a large area of your body, such as your arms, legs, or torso is burned. Also, if your back is burned, which is a common place to get a sunburn, trying to apply any kind of a compress could be a challenge. Your second best bet would be a wet towel, but taking a cooling shower might make the most sense.
3. The last thing sunburned skin needs is a harsh chemical, whether it is alkaline or acidic. If you opt for a cooling bath, adding a cup of cider vinegar to the water will help to balance out the pH of the skin. Your skin will probably thank you for it. Another thing to do if you decide on a bath is to take an oatmeal bath. An oatmeal bath can be both soothing and relaxing. It will provide soothing relief if your sunburn is starting to itch or if your skin is inflamed, which it without a doubt will be. Between a half-cup and a cup of oatmeal placed in the bath water in muslin cloth should be about right. You may want to wait until the burning sensation has eased somewhat before taking such a bath since the water needs to be quite warm for the oatmeal to be effective.
4. Make liberal use of soothing and moisturizing lotions, especially lotions that contain an ingredient that will relieve the pain. Aloe vera is especially good. You can either purchase an aloe vera lotion or, if a plant is handy, take the gel directly from the plant. Do not use lotions that are petroleum-based, especially on blisters. These types of lotions only serve to clog the pores and tend to inhibit healing.
5. There are various other approaches that are often helpful which can be done at home. An effective way to relieve pain, itching, and swelling is to apply a topical hydrocortisone cream. These over-the-counter medications are usually not expensive and are useful for other causes of skin irritation as well. Vitamin E can help. It is a powerful antioxidant and is a vitamin that can be applied topically as a cream or oil or even taken as a supplement. Two other useful remedies are black tea and cucumbers. Both are applied topically rather than being ingested where they will still be good for you but will not help much with your sunburn. The tannic acid in black tea is effective in drawing heat from sunburned skin. Cucumber that has been mashed and cooled will do so as well. The old saying “cool as a cucumber” does have some meaning.
It is worth reiterating one more time that a second-degree sunburn is nothing to be taken lightly. It is a serious matter to begin with, not to mention being highly uncomfortable and that you’ll want to avoid the complications that such a burn can cause. See a doctor as soon as possible and then proceed with the home remedies of your choice or the remedies the doctor prescribes and/or recommends.