Why a Sunburn Can Make You Sick, According to a Dermatologist

Can sunburn make you sick? Potentially. Most burns just need aloe, but here's how to tell when your scorched skin is a step worse.

Photo: Joel Carillet/Getty

Reminder: Just one severe sunburn can double your risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. That lobster red color is bad news no matter what, but when it comes to the short-term consequences, some cases are worse than others. So can sunburn make you sick? Quite possibly, yes.

Usually, soothing aloe gel or a cooling yogurt mask can usually take the "ouch" out. (You can also try these simple remedies to soothe scorched skin.) Other times, a little more care is needed—stat. Delving a bit deeper into the science of the sun scorch can help you figure out when you're facing one of those times.

How Can Sunburn Make You Sick?

Whenever the skin is injured or subject to infection, your body mounts what is called an inflammatory response in defense. This means that when ultraviolet (UV) light damages the cells, blood vessels in the surrounding tissues dilate and release chemicals such as histamine, bradykinin, cytokines, and prostaglandins. A lot of side effects can happen as a result, including swelling of the skin, headache, fever, chills, nausea, or vomiting. If any of those symptoms occur after a sunburn, that's sign number one that you need to seek medical attention.

So, When Else Should You Seek Medical Attention for a Sunburn?

  • With a blistering burn, pay attention to how much surface area is burned. If blisters are covering at least 20 percent of the skin's surface (so, your entire chest or back), get to the doctor as there's a serious risk of infection. (Psst, sunburn blisters can occur anywhere, even on your lips.)
  • If the burn is accompanied by a high fever (102°F or higher), extreme pain, headache, confusion, nausea, or chills, call the doctor—these symptoms mean you might need additional care, such as medication or IV fluids, until symptoms resolve.
  • If there is yellow drainage or red streaking from a blister, it could indicate an infection. For these cases, see a doctor immediately as prescription medication or IV antibiotics might be necessary.
  • If the sunburn doesn't heal within a week or so, it may be a good idea to touch base with the doc, as the unprotected exposure to UV rays may have brought on another skin condition.

The bottom line: Burns are always bad (and protection, like these derm-approved sunscreens, is an absolute must). But can sunburn make you sick? Yes, if it's severe. If your immune system triggers a major inflammatory response, a little red can turn into a big deal that definitely shouldn't be ignored. And as always, don't forget to get annual head-to-toe skin checks by a dermatologist to keep your skin safe. (Up Next: What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?)

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