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What is Sunburn & Just How Much Damage Can A Really Bad Sunburn Do?

It is common to get a sunburn if you don’t wear sunscreen. Sunburn is your skin’s reaction to being exposed to too much of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. What most people don’t think about is that while you can see and feel the heat of the sun, it is not possible to feel or see the UV rays being radiated from the sun. This is what can cause damage to your skin, leading to a sunburn, even on cloudy days. Did you know that even a single incidence of sunburn increases the risk of skin cancer manifolds? Sunburns can be dangerous, and it has many long-term effects on your health. Read on to find out just how much damage can a really bad sunburn do.

What is Sunburn & Just How Much Damage Can A Really Bad Sunburn Do?

Sunburn happens as a reaction to too much exposure to UV radiation from the sun. UV rays from the sun can cause damage to your skin, even when it is a cloudy day outside. To put it simply, sunburn is a radiation burn to your skin. It is the skin’s reaction to getting too much of UV rays. The first signs of sunburn can start appearing in just around 11 minutes after exposure, and it takes around two to six hours after being burnt for the skin to turn red. However, it doesn’t end here. The sunburn continues to develop for the next two to three days, and depending on the severity of the sunburn, it can even take weeks to heal.(1, 2, 3, 4)

The sunburn continues to get worse as your exposure to UV rays continues. You can treat mild sunburn at home, but blistered and severe sunburn has to be treated properly, and you should seek medical attention at the earliest.

There are many long-term effects of sunburn, including a significantly increased risk of skin cancer like melanoma (which is the most dangerous form of skin cancer), premature wrinkling, the appearance of age spots, premature aging of the skin, and your eyes can also get burnt from exposure to the sun. Repeated sunburns can damage the DNA present in our cells, and if the body does nor repair this, it can lead to the formation of abnormal cells, which ultimately causes cancer. With so many long-term effects, it is important to take steps to prevent against sunburn.(5, 6)

In fact, even one sunburn can increase your risk of developing skin cancer because as the skin absorbs the ultraviolet rays from sunlight, it causes damage to the genetic material (DNA) present in the skin cells. While in the short term, this type of UV radiation damage causes sunburns, but in the long term, after repeated sunburns, it can increase the risk of skin cancer.(7)

At the same time, it is important to know that even if you never get a sunburn, exposure to sunlight without wearing any protection for your skin can cause damage to the skin cells, thus increasing your chances of having skin cancer.(8) The risk for skin cancer is actually increased by the UV radiation that gets absorbed by the skin. If a little bit of UV radiation is absorbed, it is not necessary that you will get a sunburn. And you may not even feel any pain, but what you don’t realize is that there is some amount of damage being caused to your skin, which starts accumulating over a period of time.

What are the Symptoms of Sunburn?

The most common symptoms of sunburn include:

  • Changes in skin color – usually, the skin turns pink or red, and sometimes even purple.
  • Skin feels hot and sensitive to the touch.
  • Pain and/or itching.
  • Inflammation.
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Eyes may feel gritty or painful.
  • Fluid-filled blisters on the skin that may be itchy and will eventually break or pop.
  • Broken blisters that start to peel, revealing more sensitive/tender skin underneath.

Skin that has been sunburnt will start to change color within two to six hours after being exposed to the UV rays, and it will continue to change color for at least 72 hours. Any exposed part of the body, including lips, the scalp, and even your earlobes, can also suffer a burn. In fact, if you wear clothing that has a loose weave, you can get sunburnt in covered parts of the body as well since the loose clothing lets the UV rays pass through.

The body will start to heal itself after a sunburn within a few days. You will find the burnt skin peeling off. A severe sunburn will take several weeks to heal completely. If there are any lingering changes in the color of your skin, they will also fade away with time.(9)

Dangers of Exposure to Sunlight

Excessive exposure to sunlight can cause damage to your skin cells, increasing the risk of developing skin cancer, no matter what age you are. Earlier exposure is considered to be even more dangerous. According to research by the American Association for Cancer Research, sunburns that happen earlier in life are associated with a greater risk of melanoma skin cancer.(10) The study found that women who experienced at least five bad sunburns that cause blisters when were in the age bracket of 15 to 20 years were at a whopping 80 percent higher risk of developing melanoma skin cancer later on in life as compared to those who don’t get sunburns in their early ages.

Early exposure to sunburns is more concerning as compared to exposures that happen later in life because there is a long time in between, during which further damage can take place to your cells, ultimately causing skin cancer or other adverse health consequences.(11)

This is why it is so important to ensure that children are protected from the sun. Parents should use sunscreens with SPF (skin protection factor) of at least 30 or higher. Clothing that has a tight weave will also help provide good protection against the sun for those parts that remain covered. Remember that you should typically reapply sunscreen when you have been outside for a couple of hours or if you have gone swimming. When you apply sunscreen, it sits on the skin’s surface, and if you go swimming or if you are sweating, it is going to get wiped off, which is why it is important to reapply sunscreen after being outside for some time.

You should also stay in the shade whenever possible. Carry an umbrella whenever needed or stay under a tree to keep you away from the sun’s rays. At the same time, it is important to avoid using indoor tanning beds, which also cause significant damage to your skin cells and also increase the risk of skin cancer.(12, 13) In fact, two states in the United States have already banned children under the age of 18 years from using tanning beds.

In the US alone, skin cancer has become the most common type of cancer. Most people develop squamous cell or basal cell skin cancers, while some develop melanoma skin cancer, which is typically responsible for the majority of skin cancer-related deaths in the US.(14, 15, 16)


Don’t make the mistake of assuming that you are not getting sunburnt if you don’t feel any pain or sting on your skin. It is never a good idea to take the risk of getting exposed to UV radiation. Always make sure to wear sunscreen of at least SPF 30 when stepping out of the house, and make sure to reapply it after a few hours or after swimming.

If you notice any new spots, patches, or growths on your skin that tend to persist for a few weeks, it is a good idea to consult your doctor. You should also keep an eye out for any changes in the shape, size, or shape of any existing growths or moles you have on your skin. In some people, changes to current growths or moles or the appearance of new moles or growths can be a sign of skin cancer. While it can be annoying to keep applying sunscreen every time you have to step outside, it is essential to remain safe. And continuous checking for signs of skin cancer will also stand you in good stead since an early diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer can make a huge difference to the outcome.


  1. Gilchrest, B.A., Soter, N.A., Stoff, J.S. and Mihm Jr, M.C., 1981. The human sunburn reaction: histologic and biochemical studies. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 5(4), pp.411-422.
  2. Whiteman, D. and Green, A., 1994. Melanoma and sunburn. Cancer causes & control, 5(6), pp.564-572.
  3. Han, A. and Maibach, H.I., 2004. Management of acute sunburn. American journal of clinical dermatology, 5(1), pp.39-47.
  4. Cavallo, J. and DeLeo, V.A., 1986. Sunburn. Dermatologic clinics, 4(2), pp.181-187.
  5. Elwood, J.M., Whitehead, S.M., Davison, J., Stewart, M. and Galt, M., 1990. Malignant melanoma in England: risks associated with naevi, freckles, social class, hair colour, and sunburn. International journal of epidemiology, 19(4), pp.801-810.
  6. Morris, J., McGee, R. and Bandaranayake, M., 1998. Sun protection behaviours and the predictors of sunburn in young children. Journal of paediatrics and child health, 34(6), pp.557-562.
  7. Westerdahl, J., Olsson, H. and Ingvar, C., 1994. At what age do sunburn episodes play a crucial role for the development of malignant melanoma. European journal of cancer, 30(11), pp.1647-1654.
  8. Autier, P., Boniol, M. and Doré, J.F., 2007. Sunscreen use and increased duration of intentional sun exposure: still a burning issue. International Journal of Cancer, 121(1), pp.1-5.
  9. Zhang, X., Xu, W., Huang, M.C., Amini, N. and Ren, F., 2013, September. See UV on your skin: an ultraviolet sensing and visualization system. In Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Body Area Networks (pp. 22-28).
  10. News release archive (2022) American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). Available at: http://www.aacr.org/Newsroom/Pages/News-Release-Detail.aspx?ItemID=553#.WzRRzqknbu0 (Accessed: October 4, 2022).
  11. Davis, K.J., Cokkinides, V.E., Weinstock, M.A., O’Connell, M.C. and Wingo, P.A., 2002. Summer sunburn and sun exposure among US youths ages 11 to 18: national prevalence and associated factors. Pediatrics, 110(1), pp.27-35.
  12. Wehner, M.R., Shive, M.L., Chren, M.M., Han, J., Qureshi, A.A. and Linos, E., 2012. Indoor tanning and non-melanoma skin cancer: systematic review and meta-analysis. Bmj, 345.
  13. Falzone, A.E., Brindis, C.D., Chren, M.M., Junn, A., Pagoto, S., Wehner, M. and Linos, E., 2017. Teens, tweets, and tanning beds: rethinking the use of social media for skin cancer prevention. American journal of preventive medicine, 53(3), pp.S86-S94.
  14. Guy Jr, G.P., Machlin, S.R., Ekwueme, D.U. and Yabroff, K.R., 2015. Prevalence and costs of skin cancer treatment in the US, 2002− 2006 and 2007− 2011. American journal of preventive medicine, 48(2), pp.183-187.
  15. LeBlanc, W.G., Vidal, L., Kirsner, R.S., Lee, D.J., Caban-Martinez, A.J., McCollister, K.E., Arheart, K.L., Chung-Bridges, K., Christ, S., Clark III, J. and Lewis, J.E., 2008. Reported skin cancer screening of US adult workers. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 59(1), pp.55-63.
  16. Lakhani, N.A., Saraiya, M., Thompson, T.D., King, S.C. and Guy Jr, G.P., 2014. Total body skin examination for skin cancer screening among US adults from 2000 to 2010. Preventive medicine, 61, pp.75-80.
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:October 20, 2022

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