QUESTION: My 14-year-old came home from a camping trip with a terrible sunburn. Of course, I had put sunscreen on him before he left the house, but he refused to put it on while he was on the trip. What are the best remedies to soothe the pain? Is there anything that can be done to speed the healing process? Is there anything I shouldn’t put on the area?
Dr. Raskin: With the sizzle of summer heat fast approaching, sunburn soothing is definitely a hot topic! Of course, from a medical point of view, it is always best to prevent a sunburn and its short-term consequences of discomfort and long-term increased risks of skin cancer. However, this is not always possible because 14-year-olds do not always listen to parents’ advice while they are on their own.
Sunburn is an inflammation of the skin caused by overexposure to UV radiation from the sun. Typically, milder sunburns cause redness and pain in the areas exposed but can cause blisters and dehydration in more severe cases. If a sunburn is very severe, watch out for signs like dizziness and vomiting which would necessitate immediate medical attention.
For the milder burns, home remedies, including topical application of pain-relieving gels, which include aloe vera, can help. You can either get these in any local pharmacy, or if you have access to the aloe plant, you can cut off a chunk and gently apply it to the burn area. Leave it moist and goopy and do not rub it in too hard or you can make the area feel worse.
Also, soaking in a tepid bath can feel good, but avoid soaps or bath gels because these can irritate the skin even more. Applying damp and cool towels to the area can be helpful, but do not use ice, which can cause more burning to the surrounding skin.
I do not recommend using Vaseline on the area, which could retain more heat in the skin.
I have seen some anecdotal reports of using Noxema cream, toothpaste and damp tea bags, but I have not found any real science behind these home remedies. I have also read about people getting sunburn relief with tomato juice, apple cider vinegar or damp towels soaked in skim milk.
If you read and believe everything on the Internet, there are also reports of relief with applying cottage cheese, mashed apricots and even milk of magnesia. Again, these are more home remedies without a lot of scientific validity.
Over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can be a second choice if aloe vera is not available, but you should not use excessive amounts of cortisone cream on younger children as it can thin the skin.
Finally, simply taking some ibuprofen or aspirin soon after the burn can also provide significant relief. Unfortunately, none of these things will speed up the healing process. They only ease the discomfort.
When your child gets a significant sunburn, it is important to keep them hydrated, so make sure they take in plenty of extra fluids. Otherwise, dehydration can be a problem. Of course, most 14-year-olds will want to continue to play outside in the summer, so my best advice is to keep them in the shade or wear protective clothing and lots of sunscreen with an SPF above 45.
If you notice blisters, it is best to leave them alone or to seek medical attention if they are surrounded with redness or look infected. Do not start popping them no matter how tempting that may be! This may lead to infection, so it’s better to do this in a doctor’s office with a sterile needle if the blister becomes very uncomfortable.
Finally, when the burn starts to fade, use plenty of moisturizer on the burned area to help prevent peeling and keep the area soothed.
Palisadian Damon Raskin, M.D., is a board-certified internist who offers preventative medicine, concierge services and addiction medicine to patients in and around the Palisades. Contact: (310) 459-4333. To submit your medical questions, like or follow us on Facebook.com/PalisadianPost or Twitter.com/PalisadianPost and send a message.
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