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​Shedding Light on Sun Safety

Written by Corey Biggs

Sunshine is one of the most prized resources of tourist destinations and outdoor venues around the world. Although exposure to sunlight provides psychological and health benefits, such as vitamin D synthesis, too much of a good thing can be painful. Sunburns are one of the most common injuries experienced by vacationers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Burns can be so severe, in fact, they are often treated in Emergency Departments or urgent care facilities. In extreme cases, patients are admitted to hospital burn units.

Sunburns can occur in as little as 15 minutes. A severe burn happens when exposed skin is not adequately protected from UV light rays. Sunburns may also be accompanied by dehydration, fatigue, and nausea. A skin rash occurring after a burn is often referred to as sun poisoning or photodermatitis.

I previously interviewed Dr. Warren Tyon, an ER physician, on the consequences of sun exposure. He recollected treating several patients that used oil-based tanning products and tanning accelerators which resulted in first- and second-degree burns. These burns often occurred over 75% of body surface area and were classified as critical, especially when accompanied by dehydration, nausea, and vomiting. Tyon has also treated severe burns where no sunblock was used—often on tourists, teens or children who underestimated their time of exposure It’s important to note that individuals with fair skin, often with blond and red hair, are particularly susceptible to sun burns. Serious sunburns can also occur in overcast weather conditions. These cloudy conditions are often accompanied by wind which is capable of causing superficial burns known as wind burn.

Conditions such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke may concurrently develop in the presence of high humidity and elevated temperatures. The elderly, pregnant women, and those who previously experienced heat-related injuries are the most vulnerable.

Mild or moderate burns can be easily treated at home. One option is showering in cool water or using cold compresses to relieve pain. Over the counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can be taken, as directed, for pain. If itching occurs, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may be used as directed. Burned skin should be moisturized by applying aloe vera based gels or lotions. Products that provide topical pain relief should be used with caution for those allergic to lidocaine. Hydrating with water and electrolyte replacement beverages is imperative during recovery due to the potential of dehydration. Hydration is also important for skin repair. Alcohol and caffeinated drinks should be avoided, as they contribute to further dehydration.

The American Academy of Dermatology reports that a majority of those affected by sun exposure, requiring treatment, are youth and young adults. According to the American Cancer Society, a child or adolescent experiencing a [single] blistering sunburn or an adult who experiences five or more burns, doubles their chances of developing melanoma.

Melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer but when detected early carries a five-year survival rate of 99%. According to skincancer.org, more than 95,000 people are diagnosed daily with skin cancer; with two people dying every hour in the U.S. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.

Prevention is the best medicine. Avoiding prolonged exposure to sunlight between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. is one way to minimize your burn risk. If you are going to experience sun exposure, wear UV protective clothing, wide-brimmed hats, sunshades, and footwear that covers your entire foot. For exposed skin, utilize sunscreen with an SPF protection of 30 or greater. It is important to apply sunscreen 30 minutes before exposure and reapply every two hours—more often if profusely sweating or swimming. Hydrate! Hydrate! Hydrate!

And finally, if your occupation or recreational activities expose you to excessive sunlight, visit your primary care physician or dermatologist—yearly—for an in-depth skin evaluation. Skin cancer can develop in hidden areas on the body such as the scalp and in between your toes.

On your next fun-in-the-sun outing be prepared by staying hydrated, covering up, and taking frequent breaks from the heat. Remember, sunburns and heat injuries make for horrible souvenirs. Tell us about your experiences from soaking up too much sun.

For more information on sun exposure and heat-related injuries contact your primary care provider or contact the American Medical Association. Information on skin cancer can be found at www.skincancer.org.