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Rays in Arizona

They’re stronger than you think

By Robrt L. Pela

Now you’ve really done it. After an afternoon of high-seas sailing – or maybe just several hours of poolside snoozing – you’re toasted. Red as a lobster. Burned to a crisp. Everything hurts.

We’ve all sustained a sunburn, but few of us would risk another if we knew just how serious the damage from one can be. A sunburn is produced when the ultraviolet rays in sunlight damage the deeper layers of the skin. The resulting irritation to the skin, blood vessels and associated tissue causes the inflammation we’ve come to call a sunburn. The accompanying pain comes from the nerve cells within the skin, which are stimulated during the inflammation process. But that ache is a lousy indicator of when it’s time to come in out of the sun: It can take up to twelve hours after sun exposure for the pain to start. The degree of pain is directly related to the severity of the burn and the size of the affected skin area.

There’s no such thing as a better sunburn, but some are less dangerous than others. A typical sunburn – referred to as a superficial or first-degree burn – is painful without being touched, but the redness and associated discomfort improve after a couple of days. A second-degree burn produces deeper damage of the skin and is always more painful. In addition to the discomfort, your skin will blister, and your burn will take longer to heal – usually two or three weeks. Second-degree burns occasionally leave a mild scar. A third-degree or “total-thickness burn” fries all the layers of your skin and may land you in the hospital. Healing takes many weeks and always results in scarring.

Unless you’ve been lashed to a post in broad daylight without any sunscreen, there’s no excuse for sunburn. According to Sharon McKenna, manager of the Arizona Department of Health Services’ SunWise program, a daily application of any sunscreen or moisturizer with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher will protect you from the sun’s harmful rays.

“Applying sunscreen should be a part of our daily routine,” McKenna says. “And don’t be fooled into thinking that more expensive means more protection. A generic sunscreen will give you the same affect as a twenty-dollar tube will. Likewise, don’t go overboard and try to avoid the sun completely. That’s not healthy, either.”

McKenna points out that sunburn doesn’t pick and choose among ethnicities; folks with darker skin tones are also susceptible to the sun’s damaging rays. “We think of skin cancer as something that happens to blond-haired, blue-eyed people,” she says. “But a recent study shows that skin cancers have increased eight percent among Hispanics. There’s especially increased danger of sun damage here in Arizona, where we have more than 300 sunny days per year, and where we tend to wear less clothing and to expose more of our skin to the sun.”

Once you have a sunburn, according to Phoenix-based dermatologist Melvyn Alan Chase, it’s best to stay out of the sun for a few days. Chase suggests nonprescription painkillers other than aspirin, which dilates blood vessels and can make your skin hurt more. He also cautions against most over-the-counter treatments, but says that ointments or lotions containing local anesthetics such as benzocaine and other sensitizing agents are a good idea. “Keep in mind that nonprescription sunburn products, like cold creams and moisturizers, may reduce sunburn pain, but they don’t speed healing. And please don’t put butter or other gooey substances on the burn. They just plain don’t help.”

Another mythical sunburn cure that Chase cautions against is vitamin C. While some studies suggest that 2000 mg of vitamin C a day or use of vitamin E will reduce the risk of sunburn, neither will hasten healing once you’re burned. On the other hand, topical vitamin C creams like Cellex-C, when applied directly to the skin, will help some by decreasing the severity of a sunburn once you’ve sustained one.

Because steroid creams are no better than cold-water compresses in relieving sunburn symptoms, Chase recommends cold tap water, applied in a compress, for 30 minutes four times a day. And while he always recommends that we drink more water, he says dehydration in connection with sunburn isn’t likely. “You’d have to burn a pretty large area to dry yourself out all that much.”

Taken soon after a sunburn, a prescription medicine called Indocin will help reduce pain, redness and swelling. And among nonprescription treatments, dermatologists most often mention Dermatique Cell Renewal Formula, a therapeutic skin care regimen that nourishes the process of skin renewal by feeding epidermal building blocks and restoring skin tone and moisture.

Some of the best remedies for sunburn can be found in your vegetable crisper, according to Tina Gooch, a self-professed “hippy healer” and former holistic medicine advisor who works out of her home in Glendale. “A raw potato is your best bet for healing a sunburn,” Gooch says. “Cut it in half and spread the sap over the sunburned area. It’ll immediately cool your skin and relieve the pain. Or get your hands on some chamomile. Dilute the sap in warm water, and sponge it all over the burned area. That’s your best bet.”

Gooch is also a big fan of aloe vera as a sunburn soother. Straight aloe is best, she says, and can be purchased at most drug stores. Aloe-based burn balms are also effective, and can shorten the life of your burn and make it a less painful experience.

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This Article appears on the June 2011 issue of LPM under Health

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