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Sunburn & Itching

By M. Gideon Hoyle ; Updated August 14, 2017

Sunburn is a form of skin damage caused by overexposure to sunlight and its harmful ultraviolet rays. It typically arises within several hours after exposure and continues for a period of days or weeks. In addition to other symptoms of sunburn, you may develop itchy skin. You may also develop itching as a symptom of chronic dry skin after sunburn.


Your skin contains protective pigment cells called melanin. Sunburn occurs when your skin receives more ultraviolet light than your pigmentation can absorb or reflect. If your skin contains low amounts of melanin, it may burn in as little as 15 minutes of noonday sunlight. If your skin has high amounts of melanin, you may sustain the same level of exposure for hours without developing a sunburn. In addition to sun exposure, you can develop moderate or severe sunburn from exposure to the ultraviolet sources in tanning lamps or tanning beds. People with darker skin may not burn as quickly as people with lighter skin.

Risk Factors

In addition to low melanin content, sunburn susceptibility factors include exposure to sunlight between late morning and mid afternoon, living at high altitudes or closer to the equator, use of medications such as doxycycline, and exposure to sunlight reflected off of snow, water or sand. Since roughly 80 percent of sunlight penetrates cloud cover, you can also get a sunburn on cloudy days. Children and infants are particularly susceptible to sunburn.


Symptoms of sunburn include skin itching, redness and soreness. Additional potential symptoms include skin that is warm to touch, skin peeling that arises within days after sun exposure and blisters that may arise within hours or days after exposure. In some cases, you may also develop a severe reaction called sun poisoning, with symptoms that include chills, fever, rash or nausea.


Ease or relieve sunburn-related skin itching by applying calamine lotion to the affected area. Also apply lotions that contain pramoxine, such as Sarna. In addition, you can treat itching with an oral antihistamine such as Benadryl. However, if you choose an antihistamine, be aware that they can cause significant drowsiness. Make sure to avoid driving or using heavy machinery while taking these medications.


Dry, wrinkled skin can develop as a complication of sunburn. Dry skin can in turn lead to itching. You can relieve this itchiness by applying cool compresses to your affected skin. In addition, you can increase the moisture content in your skin through the daily use of alcohol-free moisturizers and bath oils, as well as through the use of air humidifiers and adequate daily intake of water.

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