Sunburn Blisters: How to Treat Them and How Long Do They Last?

Medically Reviewed By Reema Patel, MPA, PA-C
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Sunburn blisters are a complication of sunburns that appear as clear bubbles on the surface of the skin. They typically form after prolonged exposure to the sun’s UV rays or from tanning beds. They damage the deep layers of skin and nerve endings. This article will talk about what sunburn blisters are and how to prevent and treat sunburn blisters.

What are sunburn blisters?

Women applying sunscreen
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Sunburn blisters are a complication of getting a sunburn. They may develop hours after a sunburn has appeared or longer. Sunburn blisters typically look like clear white bubbles with translucent fluid inside.

When sunburn blisters form, it means that the deeper skin layers and nerve endings have been damaged. Sunburn blisters are typically more painful and take longer to heal than an average sunburn.

Sunburn blisters damage skin cells and can increase your chances of developing skin cancer.

When the skin is exposed for a prolonged period of time to the sun’s UV rays, it causes damage to the skin and blistering can occur.

People with white or freckled skin and blonde or red hair are more likely to get sunburned easily, though anyone can get sunburned. Children are also more sensitive to sunlight compared to adults.

You can prevent sunburn and sunburn blisters by wearing clothing and sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging rays and avoid tanning beds.

What are the symptoms of sunburn blisters?

Symptoms of sunburn blisters include:

  • a clear bubble or multiple bubbles on the skin
  • reddened skin, for some skin colors
  • peeling skin
  • red, warm, or tender skin
  • swollen skin

Some people with severe sunburn blisters may also experience chills, fever, headache, nausea, or fatigue. Seek medical care if you have any of these signs, as it could be a sign of heatstroke, a complication of prolonged sun exposure.

What causes sunburn blisters?

Sunburn blisters are caused by prolonged exposure to the sun’s UV rays.

UV rays cause the skin to make more of a pigment called melanin to protect itself. Melanin causes the skin to change color. When there is more sun radiation than your skin’s melanin can tolerate, you get a sunburn. UV rays can come from the sun or a tanning bed.

You are more likely to develop sunburn blisters between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. The sun’s rays can even pass through clouds, causing sunburn and blistering on cloudy days.

If you are near reflective surfaces such as water, white sand, ice, or snow, the sun’s rays can reflect off of these surfaces, causing severe sunburn.

People who live near the equator, such as in the southern United States, are more likely to get direct sunlight, which can cause sunburn and blistering. It is also easier to get sunburned at higher altitudes where less of the earth’s atmosphere is blocking the sun.

Sunburn and blistering are more common in the summer months because of the position of the sun.

How do you prevent sunburn blisters?

The best way to prevent sunburn blisters is to stay out of the sun and avoid tanning beds. Before going outside, you can check the UV index on your local weather channel or app. The UV index provides guidelines for sun protection depending on the strength of the sun’s UV rays that day.

When the UV index is between three and seven, it’s best to seek shade in the later morning and early afternoon. Always wear at least SPF 30 sunscreen. The likelihood of sunburn blisters is high when the UV index is eight or above.

If you must go outside, be sure to protect yourself by wearing a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more. Broad spectrum means the sunscreen will protect you against different forms of UV rays. Apply the sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going outside and reapply every 2 hours or if you are swimming or sweating a lot.

You should also try to cover most of your body with loose clothing when in the sun. This will prevent the UV rays from penetrating your skin. Cover your head with a wide-brimmed hat and wear sunglasses to protect your face and eyes from the sun. If possible, seek a shady area where there is less sun exposure.

If your skin starts to turn red or feel hot while out in the sun, get out of the sun immediately and treat the sunburn. Prolonged exposure to the sun when you are already forming a burn can place you at risk of developing sunburn blisters. If your skin is dry and starts to peel, this is another risk factor for developing blisters.

How do you treat sunburn blisters?

Most sunburn blisters can be treated with at-home care and treatments. Here are tips to treat sunburn blisters:

  • Ease the pain of sunburn blisters by taking a cool shower or applying a cold cloth to the blistered area.
  • Do not apply lotions or creams to the blistered skin. Instead, cover the area with gauze to prevent infection. You can apply a thin layer of petroleum ointment to prevent the gauze from sticking to your skin.
  • When the blisters start to break open, apply an antiseptic ointment or hydrocortisone cream. This will help heal the raw skin and prevent itching.
  • Do not pop the blisters yourself.
  • An over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin) can help relieve pain.
  • Avoid wearing clothing that covers the blisters as it could cause rubbing and irritation.
  • Stay out of the sun until the sunburn blisters heal.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially if you are experiencing headache or fatigue, as these can be symptoms of dehydration.

When should you contact a doctor for sunburn blisters?

Seek medical attention from a doctor if you experience:

  • blistering covering more than 15% of your body
  • high fever
  • chills
  • extreme pain that lasts more than 48 hours
  • signs of severe dehydration, such as dry mouth or decreased urination
  • red streaks surrounding the blisters
  • yellow or green pus draining from the blisters

What are the potential complications of sunburn blisters?

Sunburn blisters can lead to scarring on the skin if not treated properly or if you try to pop the blisters yourself. Repeated sun damage with blistering raises your chances of developing skin cancer and wrinkles, especially if the sun damage starts at a young age.

For severe sunburn blisters that cover a large area of the body, you may need special treatment in a hospital burn unit.

Sunburn blisters can occur simultaneously with sun poisoning. Symptoms of sun poisoning include:

  • dehydration
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • chills

Other frequently asked questions

These are some frequently asked questions people have about sunburn blisters.

How long does it take for sunburn blisters to appear?

You can develop sunburn blisters as soon as 4 hours after sun exposure.

How long do sunburn blisters last?

The redness, pain, and swelling from sunburn blisters typically peak 24–36 hours after the start of sun exposure and start to get better after 3–5 days.

What degree burn are sunburn blisters considered?

Sunburn blisters are considered a second-degree burn. Sunburn blisters are typically more painful and take longer to heal than an average sunburn. Sunburn blisters damage the deep layers of skin and nerve endings.

Summary

Sunburn blisters are a complication of sunburns. Sunburn blisters form after a sunburn has occurred when the skin experiences prolonged exposure to the sun.

Certain people may have a higher chance of getting sunburn blisters, such as those with light skin and anyone who does not wear sunscreen when out in the sun.

Sunburn blisters are considered a second-degree burn. Most sunburn blisters can be treated at home with cool compresses, bandages, and over-the-counter pain relievers. Notify your doctor if you have sunburn blisters accompanied by fever, chills, fatigue, or signs of severe dehydration.

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Medical Reviewer: Reema Patel, MPA, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 28
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