Burned by the Sun: When Do I Need to Go to the Doctor?

Applying sunscreen is important. To make it easier, sunscreen comes in different SPF levels and can be applied by hand and by spray bottle. We are told to reapply consistently and to watch out for others who might be getting burned. But somehow, we often miss spots. Two of those areas include our scalp and the tops of your feet.

Whether it is on your scalp or the tops of your feet, certain areas are prone to sunscreen wearing off or just being forgotten altogether. There are also times when someone falls asleep in the sun and wakes up feeling like a lobster. Even in our best efforts of protecting ourselves from the sun, most of us have been burned in some form or another.

Is your sunburn bad enough that you need to go to the doctor?


When you go inside and see the redness of your skin or feel your skin tighten after a long day in the sun, treat your burn. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sunburns aren’t always immediately apparent and symptoms usually start about four hours after sun exposure, worsen in 24 to 36 hours, and resolve in three to five days. Listed symptoms include:

  • Red, warm, and tender skin
  • Swollen skin
  • Blistering
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

The pain from sunburn is worse six to 48 hours after sun exposure. Skin peeling usually begins three to eight days after exposure.

When treating a minor sunburn, there isn’t necessarily a quick cure. Using pain relievers and fever reducers can help with many of the symptoms. The CDC recommends drinking plenty of water to replace fluid losses and applying aloe, topical moisturizing cream, or wet cloths to provide comfort to the area.

But how do you know if a sunburn is minor and can be treated at home or if you should seek medical attention?

According to the Mayo Clinic, you should consult your doctor for sunburn treatment if:

  • The sunburn is severe—with blisters—and covers a large portion of your body
  • The sunburn is accompanied by a high fever, headache, severe pain, dehydration, confusion, nausea, or chills
  • You’ve developed a skin infection, indicated by swelling, pus or red streaks leading from the blister
  • Your sunburn doesn’t respond to at-home care

Pay attention to your burns when they occur, and continue keeping an eye on the area. Avoid sun exposure once you are burned to make sure it doesn’t get worse. Because no one is perfect when it comes to applying sunscreen, pay attention to the symptoms and the appearance of your skin to ensure you are receiving the proper medical care.