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Sunburn occurs when the radiation your skin absorbs is more than your body's naturally produced pigment, melanin, can absorb. Melanin protects the skin and gives it its color. The more you're exposed to ultraviolet radiation, the more melanin you produce and the darker you get, until your body reaches saturation and sunburn results. Too much sun can cause lasting damage to the skin and can even lead to skin cancer.

In most cases only the topmost layer of the skin is burned, resulting in redness, tenderness, pain and the sensation of feeling hot. These effects are usually seen and felt within a few hours and peeling can follow over the next 4-7 days. More severe burns can cause blisters to form, peeling becomes more pronounced, and fever, chills and nausea can result.

Serious cases may require medical attention. In addition to the immediate results from a sunburn, it's important to remember that skin that is overexposed to the sun for years runs an even greater risk of permanant damage. At the least the skin will age prematurely, with sagging and wrinkling, and will take on a leathery appearance. Ultimately, you can develop cancer.

If you spend a lot of time in the sun, examine yourself regularly for any birthmarks or moles that change appearance, or areas of skin that itch, burn or bleed. Any sign of cancer should be attended to immediately by your doctor. People with light complexions are at greater risk than those with darker natural skin tones. Also, some medications can increase the skin's sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation. Check with your doctor or pharmacist. Sunscreen and suntanning products are now rated in terms of the "sun protection factor" (SPF) they provide.

The higher the number the greater the protection. People who burn easily should use a product with an SPF of 15 or higher. Apply the product liberally to all exposed areas of the skin. Frequent reapplications may be necessary for continued protection. Remember the sun is most intense between 10 AM and 2 PM, so limit exposure during those hours. Also, behave on cloudy days the same as when the sun is out; clouds do not block ultraviolet radiation.

If you're burned, a few over-the-counter remedies can help: aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen all reduce pain and swelling (do NOT give aspirin to children under 16 unless directed by a physician); anesthetic creams or sprays can provide temporary relief; antibacterial soaps and antiseptics can prevent infection; aloe-based products can soothe and cool overheated skin; and moisturizers can help keep your skin from drying out and tightening up.

Cooling compresses and cold baths are also effective measures. It is important to consult your physician or pharmacist before using any over-the-counter drugs or treatments. They will be able to advise you on proper usage and can warn you of possible side effects and contraindications.

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