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Health Information What to Do About Overexposure

The pain of sunburn can be uncomfortable. But it's the aftereffects of a sunburn that are of greatest concern. Sunburn is caused by ultraviolet rays, and exposure to this type of radiation can raise the risk for skin cancers.

Skin cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer in the United States. Consistent use of sunscreen and avoiding the peak hours (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) when the sun is most intense are the first steps to lowering your risk. The next most important prevention technique is seeing a dermatologist for a regular checkup.

"Exposure to ultraviolet radiation causes a chain reaction in the skin," says Clarence W. Brown, Jr., MD, a skin cancer expert and director of the Mohs Micrographic Surgery Program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "The formation of pigmentation to protect the body and its DNA is the bodys first reaction to exposure. The pain of sunburn is actually caused by the inflammation process triggered by dying cells."

Helping Your Body Recover
Brown suggests taking an anti-inflammatory agent like aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce the pain from this process. "Its also important to maintain good hydration, drink plenty of nonalcoholic and caffeine-free fluids," he says. "Of course, use creams and emollients to help soothe the surface of the skin. And, its not a bad idea to take some antioxidants, like vitamin C, to help you body heal."

Know Your Risk
Sun exposure increases your risk of the two main types of skin cancer, basal and squamous cell carcinomas.

Other factors that can increase your risk are:

  • Age (the older you are the higher your risk)
  • Cumulative exposure (the more total time that youve spent in the sun during your life the higher your risk)
  • Where you live (the more ultraviolet exposure where you live the higher your risk)
  • Type of complexion (the lighter or fairer your complexion the higher your risk)

Dont Be Fooled
Glaring sun and warm days are often the trigger for putting on sunscreen, but its still needed, even on cloudy days, because ultraviolet rays are still hitting the skin. Many people feel they dont need to protect the skin when they are in the shade. Even sitting in the shade ultraviolet rays can be bouncing off the water, sand or other reflective surfaces. A good rule of thumb is to wear sunscreen any time youre outdoors during peak hours.

Be Generous
Dont be stingy with the sunscreen. Remember to reapply every hour and a half, more frequently if youre perspiring heavily or participating in water activities, like swimming or surfing.

"In my opinion, every adult should have skin exam once a year," says Brown. "Children with moles should also have frequent exams. Also, if you see a change in a mole or freckle thats when you should contact your dermatologist."

More Information at Your Fingertips:

  • For more information about skin care at Rush, visit the Dermatology clinical services home page.
  • Looking for a doctor? Call toll free: 888 352-RUSH (7874)

Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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