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Sunburn cures?

Hi Alice,

I was in the sun for seven hours yesterday and I got a pretty bad sunburn. My face has blisters all over it. The redness is severe, and the pain is severe. Any suggestions that you may have will help. To top it off, I am a diabetic and am worried about infection of the blisters. 

Thanks.

Dear Reader, 

Ouch! Your burn does sound pretty severe. Intense redness, pain, and especially blistering may indicate that you likely need to have your skin looked at by a health care provider. If you experience chills, a fever, nausea, or disorientation, seek medical help immediately. As someone with diabetes, your concerns are warranted as folks living with this condition are often at a higher risk of infections. But that’s not the only concern for diabetics (more on that in a bit). That said, there are some at-home methods to help reduce your current discomfort and a few strategies you can employ to prevent sunburn in the future. 

To help ease your discomfort in the short term, you can try some of the following strategies: 

  • Avoid additional sun exposure as you heal. 
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. 
  • Use moisturizer or aloe vera and remove any peeling skin gently as your skin heals and peels. 
  • Apply a cool, wet compress or take a cool bath. 
  • Take an over the counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen. 
  • Make sure the blisters you have stay clean, but unbroken—try to avoid popping them. If any blisters do pop, wash them gently with mild soap and water to help keep the area clean and free of bacteria that would lead to an infection. Apply antibacterial ointment to the affected areas and cover them with gauze if needed. 

Adapted from Mayo Clinic 

Though you may be feeling pretty lousy right now, it’s advised that you avoid using any OTC sprays or medication for sunburn relief that contain ingredients ending in “-caine” (e.g., benzocaine). The use of these products may actually further irritate the skin and can even result in an allergic reaction for some folks. 

While infection is a concern for anyone who experiences blisters caused by a sunburn, this is especially a concern for diabetics. According to the American Diabetes Association, people living with diabetes are more prone to infections, especially those caused by bacteria or fungus. In order to prevent infections, consider using moisturizer regularly and keeping your skin clean and dry at all times. If you notice any signs of infection (e.g., increase in pain or swelling, yellow-ish drainage (pus) from a blister, or red streaks leading around a blister), or if you don’t feel that the sunburn is improving, consider seeking medical attention as soon as possible. 

Folks with diabetes may also want to be aware of their blood glucose levels when dealing with sunburn. It’s been noted that extended exposure to heat and pain, such as the type associated with sunburn, can increase hormone levels that raise blood glucose levels for diabetics and can impact how their body uses insulin. Some complications of diabetes can prevent your body from cooling itself off effectively, increasing the risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Diabetics are more likely to get dehydrated more quickly, causing a rise in blood glucose levels. Because of this, it’s key to keep your glucose levels in control by following the treatment plan you’ve developed with your health care provider. 

In the meantime, here are some tips for managing diabetes in the heat: 

  • Test your glucose levels regularly. 
  • Stay hydrated and carry a snack—drinking plenty of water; staying away from sugary drinks, coffee, or alcohol; and having a snack on hand can help to keep your blood sugar at an ideal level. 
  • Consider the shoes you wear—being barefoot or wearing sandals can expose your feet to injury. 
  • Try to be mindful of your medication and testing supplies—heat can damage insulin, testing strips, and other medical supplies. Using a cooler bag can help keep your medicines secure, however, be aware not to put your medication directly on ice or on a gel pack. 

Adapted from University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School 

Lastly, it’s good to mention that over-exposure to the sun also increases your chances of premature aging of the skin and developing malignant melanoma—the least common, but most lethal form of skin cancer. Moving forward, consider what precautions you can take to limit your exposure before heading out for another day under the sun. Some recommended strategies include limiting sun exposure during peak sun hours—often between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.—, applying sunscreen regularly (SPF 15 or more is advised), and wearing clothing and protective gear (e.g., long sleeves, hats, sunglasses) to cover your skin as an additional layer of protection. 

Here’s to hoping your skin recovers quickly and without complication. 

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Last updated Jun 23, 2023
Originally published Sep 11, 1998

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