Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are a health care professional

honeypot link



Julia Benedetti

, MD, Harvard Medical School

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2023
Topic Resources

Sunburn is characterized by erythema and sometimes pain and blisters caused by overexposure to solar ultraviolet radiation. Treatment is similar to that for thermal burns, including cool compresses, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and, for severe cases, sterile dressings and topical antimicrobials. Prevention by sun avoidance and use of sunscreens is crucial.

Sunburn results from overexposure of the skin to ultraviolet (UV) radiation; wavelengths in the UVB spectrum (280 to 320 nm) cause the most pronounced effects.

Symptoms and Signs of Sunburn

Symptoms and signs of sunburn appear in 1 to 24 hours and, except in severe reactions, peak within 72 hours (usually between 12 hours and 24 hours). Skin changes range from mild erythema, with subsequent superficial scaling, to pain, swelling, skin tenderness, and blisters. Constitutional symptoms (eg, fever, chills, weakness, shock), similar to those of a thermal burn, may develop if a large portion of the body surface is affected; these symptoms may be caused by the release of inflammatory cytokines such as IL-1. Very sunburned skin may exfoliate days later.

The most common complications of sunburn are secondary infection, permanent blotchy pigmentation, and significantly increased risk of skin cancer. Exfoliated skin may be extremely vulnerable to sunlight for several weeks.

Treatment of Sunburn

  • Cold compresses

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

Further exposure should be avoided until sunburn has completely subsided. Cold tap-water compresses and oral NSAIDs help relieve symptoms, as may topical treatments (eg, aloe vera, other water-based lotions). Petrolatum-based products such as petroleum jelly should be avoided in severe sunburns. Topical corticosteroids are no more effective than cool compresses. Blistered areas should be managed similarly to other partial-thickness burns (see Initial wound care Initial wound care Initial wound care ), with sterile dressings and antimicrobial salves.

Early treatment of extensive, severe sunburn with a systemic corticosteroid (eg, oral prednisone 20 to 30 mg 2 times a day for 4 days for adults or adolescents) may decrease the discomfort, but this use is controversial.

Prevention of Sunburn

Simple precautions Prevention The skin may respond to sunlight with chronic (eg, dermatoheliosis [photoaging], actinic keratosis) or acute (eg, photosensitivity, sunburn) changes. The sun emits a wide range of electromagnetic... read more (eg, avoiding the sun especially during midday; wearing tightly woven clothing, a hat, and sunglasses; applying sunscreens) significantly reduce the chances of sunburn.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Advocate Pain Relief Stick, Americaine, Anbesol, Anbesol Baby , Anbesol Jr , Banadyne-3, Benzodent, Benz-O-Sthetic, Boil-Ease, Cepacol Sensations, Chloraseptic, Comfort Caine , Dry Socket Remedy, Freez Eez, HURRICAINE, HURRICAINE ONE, Little Remedies for Teethers, Monistat Care, Orabase, OraCoat CankerMelts, Orajel, Orajel Baby, Orajel Denture Plus, Orajel Maximum Strength, Orajel P.M., Orajel Protective, Orajel Severe Pain, Orajel Swabs, Orajel Ultra, Oral Pain Relief , Oticaine , Otocain, Outgro, Pinnacaine, Pro-Caine, RE Benzotic, Topex, Topicale Xtra, Zilactin-B
Aid to Sleep, Alka-Seltzer Plus Allergy, Aller-G-Time , Altaryl, Banophen , Benadryl, Benadryl Allergy, Benadryl Allergy Children's , Benadryl Allergy Dye Free, Benadryl Allergy Kapgel, Benadryl Allergy Quick Dissolve, Benadryl Allergy Ultratab, Benadryl Children's Allergy, Benadryl Children's Allergy Fastmelt, Benadryl Children's Perfect Measure, Benadryl Itch Stopping, Ben-Tann , Children's Allergy, Compoz Nighttime Sleep Aid, Diphedryl , DIPHEN, Diphen AF , Diphenhist, DiphenMax , Dytan, ElixSure Allergy, Genahist , Geri-Dryl, Hydramine, Itch Relief , M-Dryl, Nighttime Sleep Aid, Nytol, PediaCare Children's Allergy, PediaCare Nighttime Cough, PediaClear Children's Cough, PHARBEDRYL, Q-Dryl, Quenalin , Siladryl Allergy, Silphen , Simply Sleep , Sleep Tabs, Sleepinal, Sominex, Sominex Maximum Strength, Theraflu Multi-Symptom Strip, Triaminic Allergy Thin Strip, Triaminic Cough and Runny Nose Strip, Tusstat, Unisom, Uni-Tann, Valu-Dryl , Vanamine PD, Vicks Qlearquil Nighttime Allergy Relief, Vicks ZzzQuil Nightime Sleep-Aid
Deltasone, Predone, RAYOS, Sterapred, Sterapred DS
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
quiz link

Test your knowledge

Take a Quiz!