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Taking the Sting Out of Sunburn Pain

Though summertime usually means good times in the great outdoors, the season doesn’t always bring fun and games  - especially when you have too many unprotected moments in the sun.  The redness and soreness is bad enough, but the searing pain can leave you wishing you had lathered on that extra layer of sunscreen!

What many consider good news is that British researchers have found what causes sunburn’s stinging pain. They state that it may be possible to develop a treatment so that pain from sunburn could one day be a thing of the past.

A pain-blocking molecule.

The discovery is a protein molecule called CXCL5. Scientists have observed that in laboratory rats this protein is increased with sunburn and that by blocking it effects, pain diminishes. Sounds like a great idea for a new sunburn product, right?

Well, not so fast. Stephen McMahon, a professor of physiology at Guy's Medical School in London (who also has a long history in pain research), believes blocking the pain from sunburn may not be a good move. That's because pain is actually one of our body’s protective defenses. Painful sensations let us know possible danger is ahead. For that reason, blocking pain isn't always a good thing.

What causes sunburn?

Sunburns occur when your body responds to too much ultraviolet radiation. UV radiation can destroy skin cells and permanently damage DNA. Skin cancer can be the ultimate result. Sunburn is actually the body’s rescue attempt as it tries to pump oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the damaged skin cells. This increased blood flow is what turns the skin red. Blisters occur when swollen blood vessels leak plasma.

The problem is that the first sign of your skin turning pink means that the damage is already done. Unfortunately, it can’t be undone. Protecting yourself in the first place is the best thing you can do to avoid sunburn. However, as we all know, it's not always possible to be prepared. We can’t always avoid the outdoors during peak times, or wear a floppy hat. We all know we should use sunscreen but sometimes we forget to apply it to every square inch of our body.  The unintentional results are pink cheeks and shoulders and red feet. So, until this new science is made a reality . . . what should you do?

Tips for beating sunburn pain.

Take aspirin. Aspirin works better than acetaminophen because it is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory that targets the chemicals known to contribute to sunburn pain.

Use sunburn creams with menthol. You feel the burn because increased blood flow releases heat. Menthol is known to cool the skin.

Don't peel your skin.  Sunburned skin tends to peel off in sheets because the skin cells are packed together. The best thing to do this just let it peel off naturally. If you try to peel on your own, you could end up with a scar or infection.

Stay hydrated. Sunburned skin has difficulty retaining water. Make sure you drink lots of fluids and apply a heavy moisturizer.

Perhaps one day it will be possible to block the searing, stinging pain of sunburn at the first hint of pinkish skin.  But for right now, taking protective steps before you go outdoors and then, if that fails, caring for your sunburn with the above tips is the best we can do. 

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