Harmful Effects of Sun Exposure

The main risk factor for sunburn, premature skin aging, skin damage, and skin cancer is exposure to UV light from the sun. More than 90 percent of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure. Using tanning beds and tanning lamps also increases the risk for skin damage and skin cancer.

The risk for skin damage and skin cancer is related to the number of sunburns a person experiences throughout his or her lifetime. The following physical characteristics also increase the risk for sunburn, skin damage, and skin cancer:

  • Blond or red hair
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Fair skin
  • Freckles
  • Moles (also called nevi)

The risk for skin damage and skin cancer is higher in people with lighter skin. However, people who have darker skin also must protect their skin from the sun to reduce lifetime exposure to harmful UV rays and help prevent skin damage and skin cancer. Lifetime exposure to the sun, which is associated with an increased risk for skin cancer, often is higher in older people and in men.

Certain medications (e.g., antibiotics, antidepressants, acne medications [retinoids]) can increase sun sensitivity. Patients should speak with a physician about medications that can make the skin more sensitive to the sun.

Having a family member with skin cancer increases the risk for the disease in adults and also in children. It is important to learn what to look for and how to monitor the skin for significant changes (e.g., asymmetrical mole, sores that do not heal normally).

Signs of Sun Damage

The first and most obvious symptom of sunburn is redness of the skin. Other noticeable symptoms include stinging pain and feelings of heat that radiate from the skin's surface. Pain and discomfort often worsen for a few hours following sun exposure and last from 12 to 48 hours.

Small blisters, which may be unnoticeable, can form and lead to peeling skin a few days after exposure. Severe sunburns may produce larger blisters. Patients should not open or pop these blisters, as this can increase the risk for infection.

Other, less common, symptoms of sunburn include abdominal cramping, weakness, flu-like symptoms, fever, chills, headache, and rapid pulse rate. These symptoms also may be signs of heat stress or heat stroke.

Infection is a serious sunburn complication that requires immediate medical treatment. Signs of infection include increasing redness, fever, or a foul smell from the skin.

Other symptoms that require immediate treatment in a child who has sunburn include the following:

  • Confusion
  • Fainting
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Severe blistering
  • Severe pain
  • Vomiting

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 06 Oct 2015