Travel Health Service Sunburn
Enviromental health risks


About sunlight exposure

Direct sunlight can have beneficial effects (e.g. in vitamin D synthesis which is good for your bone). However, the ultraviolet radiation of sunlight can cause detrimental effects. There are two major components of ultraviolet radiation, i.e. Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB). UVA triggers skin reactions associated with certain medications (e.g. oral contraceptives, some anti-malarials, etc.), and also plays a large role in the photoaging process. UVB can cause damage to the skin (sunburn, skin cancer) and the eye (snow blindness).

Signs and symptoms of sunburn

In mild cases :

  • Red swollen, painful and sometimes blistered skin.

  • Tanning or peeling of skin after recovery.

In severe cases :

  • Mental disturbance.

  • Vomiting.

  • Body temperature > 38.5°C.

  • Pain or fever for longer than 48 hours.

Prevention of Sunburn

  • Travellers should avoid exposure to sun between noon and 3:00 p.m.

  • Wear a loose-fitting, light-coloured hat with a wide brim.

  • Protect the eyes by wearing good quality sunglasses, especially when skiing or trekking in snow.

  • Use a sun block with a sun protection factor (SPF) greater than 15. SPF of fifteen means that for a given light condition it takes 15 times longer to develop redness with the screen than without. Reapply after swimming or sweating.

  • Another alternative is to use a physical blocker such as Zinc-oxide ointment. It offers maximum protection and must be reapplied frequently.

  • If one wants to get a good sun-tan, sun exposure must be done slowly and cautiously. For example, first day 5-10 minutes each side, second day 10-15 minutes each side, then increase 5 minutes each side per day.

  • Be extra careful if you are having oral contraceptive or taking doxycycline for prevention of malaria.


  • Apply moisturizing cream to reduce heat and pain.

  • Do not puncture blisters because this increases the chance of wound infection.

  • Pat the skin dry; do not rub to avoid further damage.

  • Use aspirin to reduce the pain and lower the temperature.

  • Keep pressure off burned skin to help relieve pain.