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The editors of Prevention Health Books, all top-level health practitioners, are dedicated to providing authoritative, trustworthy, and innovative advice for a healthy, active lifestyle.
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37 Cooling Treatments
Scarlett O'Hara was right. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, carrying a parasol, and shunning the sun are good ideas. Anything to avoid the terrible pain, itching, and swelling of a sunburn.
If you found yourself outside without your trusty parasol and came away with a nasty sunburn, heed this advice from the experts.
Apply soothing compresses. Following a burn, the skin is inflamed. Cool it down with compresses dipped in any one of the following substances. If desired, you can direct a fan on the sunburned area to heighten cooling.
Cold water: Use either plain water from the faucet or add a few ice cubes, says Michael Schreiber, M.D. Dip a cloth into the liquid and lay it over the burn. Repeat every few minutes as the cloth warms. Apply several times a day for a total of 10 to 15 minutes each.
Aluminum acetate. If itching is intense, says Thomas Gossel, Ph.D., R.Ph., try mixing Domeboro's powder packets (available in drugstores) with water. The aluminum acetate in the powder keeps skin from getting too dry or itchy. Follow package directions.
Witch hazel. Moisten a cloth with witch hazel, says Fredric Haberman, M.D. This incredible astringent has been shown to have long-lasting anti-inflammatory relief. Apply often for temporary relief. For smaller areas, dip cotton balls into the liquid and gently stroke on.
Soak the pain away. An alternative to compresses, especially for larger areas, is a cool bath. Add more liquid as needed to keep the water at the proper temperature. Afterward, gently pat your skin dry with a clean towel. Do not rub you skin, or you'll irritate it further. The following substances can reduce pain, itching, and inflammation.
Vinegar: Mix 1 cup of white or apple cider vinegar into a tub of cool water, says Carl Korn, M.D. A great astringent, it soothes sunburn pain.
Aveeno powder. If the sunburn involves a large area, use the premeasured packets or add 1/2 cup of Aveeno Bath Treatment, made from oatmeal, to a tub of cool water, says Dr. Schreiber. Soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Aveeno is a well-known remedy for itching.
Baking Soda. Generously sprinkle baking soda into tepid bath water, suggests Dr. Haberman. Instead of toweling off, let the solution dry on your skin. It is completely nontoxic, and it will soothe the pain.
Go easy on soap. Soap can dry and irritate burned skin. If you must use soap, says Dr. Gossel, use only a mild brand and rinse it off very well. Do not soak in soapy water. Likewise, stay away from bubble baths.
Moisturize your skin. Soaks and compresses feel good and give temporary relief, says Rodney Basler, M.D. But they can make your skin feel drier than before if you don't apply moisturizer immediately afterward. Pat yourself dry, then smooth on some bath oil.
Let it soak in for a minute, then apply a moisturizing cream or lotion, such as Eucerin. Some people like a topical cream called Wibi, which contains a little bit of cooling menthol.
Chill out. For added relief, try chilling your moisturizer before applying it.
Seek hydrocortisone relief. Soothe skin irritation and inflammation with a topical lotion, spray, or ointment containing 1 percent hydrocortisone, such as Cortaid or Cortizone-10 says Dr. Basler.
Say goodbye with aloe. "We're starting to see evidence in medical literature that aloe vera may really help wound healing," says Dr. Basler. Simply break off a leaf and apply the juice. But test a small area first, he cautions, to make sure you're not allergic to aloe.
Guard against infection. If you have an infection or are worried that one will develop, use an over-the-counter antibacterial ointment such as Polysporin or Neosporin, says Dr. Schreiber.
Try a local anesthetic. If your burn is mild, an over-the-counter anesthetic can relieve pain and itching, says Dr. Gossel. Look for brands that contain benzocaine, benzyl alcohol, lidocaine, or diphenhydramine hydrochloride. Aerosols are easier to apply than creams or ointments, but never spray them directly onto your face. Instead, put some on a piece of gauze or a cotton pad and pat in on your face to avoid contact with your eyes.
Try an ice pack. An ice pack can also provide relief if the burn is mild. Wrap it in a damp cloth and hold it over the sunburn. Improvise, if necessary, says Dr. Haberman. "You could even take a bag of frozen peas, for instance, and use that. But make sure to wrap it first so that you're not placing the icy package directly against your skin.."
Drink up. It's a good idea to drink lots of water to help counteract the drying effects of a sunburn, says Dr. Gossel.
Eat right. Eat lightly but wisely, Dr. Gossel adds. A balanced diet helps provide the nutrients your skin needs to regenerate itself.
Raise your legs. If you legs are burned and you feet are swollen, elevate your legs above heart level to help stop the swelling, says Dr. Basler.
Get a good night's rest. Sleeping on a sunburn can be challenging, but you need rest for your body to recover from the burn. Try sprinkling talcum powder on your sheets to minimize chafing and friction, says Dr. Haberman. A waterbed or air mattress might also help you sleep more easily.
Be careful with blisters. If blisters develop, you have a pretty bad burn. If they bother you and they cover only a small area, you may carefully drain them, says Dr. Basler. But do not peel the top skin offyou'll have less discomfort and danger of infection if air does not come in contact with sensitive nerve endings.
To drain the fluid, first sterilize a needle by holding it over a flame. Then puncture the edge of the blister and press gently on the top to let the fluid come out. Do this three times in the first 24 hours, says Dr. Basler. Then leave the blisters alone.
Beware ice and snow. Don't let your guard down in winter, says Butch Farabee, former assistant superintendent of Montana's Glacier National Park. You can get a fierce burn from the sun's rays reflected off ice and snow. "I've even gotten the inside of my mouth sunburned when hiking up icy hills because I was breathing so hard that my mouth was open," he says. So cover up appropriately and wear sunscreen on all exposed areas.
Don't make the same mistake twice. After you've gotten burned, it takes 3 to 6 months for your skin to return to normal, says Dr. Schreiber. "When you get a sunburn and the top layer of skin peels off, the newly exposed skin is more sensitive than ever. That means you'll burn even faster than you did before if you're not careful."
WHEN TO CALL A DOCTOR
A severe burn can take a lot out of you, says Rodney Basler, M.D. Consult a doctor if you experience nausea, chills, fever, faintness, extensive blistering, general weakness, patches of purple discoloration, or intense itching. Be aware that if the burn seems to be spreading, you could have an infection compounding the problem.
Do just 1 thing
Take some aspirin. This old standby can help relieve the pain, itching, and swelling of a mild to moderate burn. "Take two tablets every 4 hours," says Rodney Basler, M.D. The same dosage of Tylenol also would work. Or, if your stomach can tolerate it, you might try ibuprofen every 8 hours. Follow label instructions for dosages.
If you know you've gotten too much sun, try taking aspirin before the redness appears. "Some doctors recommend 650 milligrams of aspirin soon after sun exposure. Repeat every 4 hours for up to six doses," says Thomas Gossel, Ph.D., R.Ph.
Cures from the Kitchen
Common kitchen staples can be great sunburn soothers. Press the following into emergency action.
Oatmeal. Wrap dry oatmeal in cheesecloth or gauze. Run cool water through it. Discard the oatmeal and soak compresses in the liquid. Apply every 2 to 4 hours.
Fat-free milk. Mix 1 cup fat-free milk with 4 cups water, then add a few ice cubes. Apply compresses for 15 to 20 minutes; repeat every 2 to 4 hours.
Cornstarch. Add enough water to cornstarch to make a paste. Apply directly to the sunburn.
Lettuce. Boil lettuce leaves in water. Strain, then let the liquid cool several hours in the refrigerator. Dip cotton balls into the liquid and gently press or stroke onto irritated skin.
Yogurt. Apply yogurt to all sunburned areas. Rinse off in a cool shower, then gently pat skin dry.
Tea bags. If your eyelids are burned, apply tea bags soaked in cool water to decrease swelling and help relieve pain. Tea has tannic acid, which seems to ease sunburn pain.