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Sunburn and sun protection

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Sunburn is a symptom of a damaged skin produced by overexposure to the sun's harmful UV-rays, and one of the main dangers of traveling in sunny climates.

Characteristics

Typically there is initial redness (erythema), followed by varying degrees of pain, both proportional in severity to the duration and intensity of exposure. After being burned, the skin may turn red 2 to 6 hours later. Pain is worst 6 to 48 hours afterward. The burn continues to develop for 24 to 72 hours after exposure. Skin peeling begins 3 to 8 days after the burn occurs. Common outcomes include tenderness, pain, edema, red and/or peeling skin, rash, nausea and fever. Sunburns may be first- or second-degree burns.

Minor sunburns typically cause nothing more than slight redness and tenderness to the affected area. In more serious cases blistering can occur. Extreme sunburns can be painful to the point of debilitation and may require hospital care.

Be careful

When travelling you should take more care to sun protection, because you usually spend more time outdoors. Never underestimate the power of the sun in southern regions, in the mountains or even on an ordinary summer day at noon.

Before you leave, try to get information on the weather conditions of the region you're traveling to, especially related to sunshine and sunpower.

Increased risks

Your susceptibility to sunburns is strongly dependent on your skin tone. People with red hair, green eyes and freckled skin are under the highest risk of contracting skin damage.

The risk of sunburn increases when you come closer to the earth's equator. It can also be increased by the intake of pharmaceutical products. Certain antibiotics, contraceptives and tranquillizers provoke over-sensitivity to sunshine.

In recent years, the incidence and severity of sunburn has increased worldwide, especially in the southern hemisphere, because of damage to the ozone layer due to CFCs. Some are worried that ozone depletion and the seasonal ozone hole has led to dangerously high levels of UV radiation.

UV-index

The UV-index is an international standard giving information about the intensity of the sun rays. Consequently it gives an indication of the risks that these rays can provoke. The higher the value of the index, the higher the risk for sunburn.

More and more weather stations and local newspapers include a prediction of the uv values for the days to come in their forecast. However, be prepared that you will not find this information if you travel to less developed countries. It's wise to get the latest information just before you leave. There are a lot of websites where you can can UV-index predictions from all over the world.

The intensity of UV radiation is affected by the following factors:

  • Latitude - strongest near the equator (in the tropics)
  • Altitude - UV radiation increases rapidly with altitude.
  • Season - strongest in summer,
  • Weather - strongest on clear, dry days
  • Surroundings - sand and snow intensifies UV radiation

Protection

Protecting yourself is the best you can do. Here is some advice that could help you.

Sunglasses

Sunglasses are a must in bright sunlight, and especially in areas where the surroundings reflect sunlight, such as beaches, glaciers, and deserts.

Warning: wearing sunglasses with no UV protection causes more damage to your eyes than wearing no sunglasses at all, so make sure your sunglasses are from a reputable, UV-certified brand.

Also make sure your sunglasses leave no gaps in the field of vision: If you gaze downward and can see past the sunglasses, your eyes will still be exposed to some UV radiation. In environments with high UV intensity, such as high altitudes, use ski goggles rather than sunglasses.

Though counterintuitive, clear or light tinted sunglasses offer better protection than dark tinted ones, since a) your natural aversion to sunlight is preserved, and b) your pupils remain constricted, letting less light into your eyes.

Clothing

Clothing is by far the most effective defense against the sun. When travelling in a tropical environment, wear a large hat or headscarf, a white or beige long sleeved shirt made of thick cotton, and a pair of long trousers. Avoid wearing shorts and T-shirts; use long-sleeved baggy clothing instead, which will keep you just as cool while avoiding sunburn. The back of your neck is especially prone to sunburn, so get a shirt with a collar and wear the collar upwards (or wear a cotton scarf). When wearing sandals, wear them with socks (looking geeky should be the least of your worries when you're travelling).

On the beach, don't take your clothing off except when swimming. In fact, keeping your shirt on while swimming isn't a bad idea either. If you feel that staying fully clothed defies the whole point of beaches, wrap yourself in a thick sarong while dressed in a swimming costume only.

Sun Lotion

Applying sun lotions is better than nothing, but bear in mind that even the highest factor sunlotions only provide partial UV-protection, and none are suitable for prolongued (2 hours+) exposure to strong sunlight. Sun lotions should only be used as a last resort where clothing isn't possible or practicable, eg. on the back of your hands, or while you are in the water. To work effectively, they need to be reapplied at least every 2 hours.

Behaviour

Don't venture outdoors during the hours of noon, if you're travelling in a tropical climate. Plan outdoor activities such as swimming in the early morning or late afternoon.

Treatment

When seriously burned, try to see a doctor as soon as possible, or go to a pharmacy or drugstore for over-the-counter treatments.

Never dive into open water to cool off. Your skin will get extra damage by the sun rays (even in the shade!). Also beware of infection, especially when your skin is blistering. Take a cool shower (not cold) or a bath. Avoid scrubbing and shaving, use soft towels to dry yourself.

Apart from medical treatments, there are some popular treatments that can give immediate relief. On some occasions they might be your only choice:

  • the mucilaginous gel of the Aloe vera plant heals the burn (Aloe is a common ingredient in commercial lotions for treating sunburn.)
  • white vinegar and apple cider prevent blistering; you can add them to a bath too
  • blend potatoes and apply then to the skin
  • apply lavender oil, cooled tea, yogurt, St. John's wort, avocado or cucumbers to relief symptoms
  • use milk drenched towels on the affected areas; clean with cool water
  • tomato seems to be painful, but most effective
  • apply cool, wet towels to the burnt areas to take the heat out

Get as much rest as you can and drink lots of water to prevent dehydration. And stay out of the sun for the next one or two weeks!

Heat stroke

Sunstroke or heat prostration is a serious – possibly even life-threatening – which occurs when the body can no longer control its temperature; body heat rises and the victim becomes extremely ill.

High temperature is a major factor in this, of course. Humidity is also very important; when the humidity is high, water evaporates more slowly and the body's normal method of cooling itself by sweating is much less effective. Dehydration can contribute to the problem by making you sweat less;\you should always drink lots of water when it is hot. Any physical exertion adds to the problem.

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