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When regarding sunburns, most people would categorize the burn as the problem, while the pain, discoloration, and peeling are considered the “symptoms”. This common misconception is present because a sunburn’s short term side effects are tangible and visible, and therefore easily recognizable. However, people fail to realize that sunburns themselves are symptoms of skin damage and indications of increased risk of skin cancer.

The nervous system of the human body produces pain as a communication system. It is the brain’s method of telling the body that there is something wrong, and that special care is necessary. In the same way a broken leg makes us stop walking, a sunburn is the body’s reaction to too much sun exposure, and the pain associated with it is intended to communicate that the skin needs a hiatus from the sun. Just like there are types of breaks or fractures in bones, there are types, or degrees, of burns. While the short term, supposed “symptoms” of first and second degree burns differ, the lasting effects of the two, and, in fact, any burn, are identical.

Burns are classified according to the amount of tissue they affect and how deep they are. A first-degree burn is considered the least serious type of burn because it injures only the top layers of skin, called the epidermis. Skin with a first-degree burn is red, sore, and sensitive to the touch. It may also be moist, slightly swollen, or itchy. When lightly pressed, the reddened skin whitens, which is called blanching. First-degree sunburns do not usually blister or leave a scar.

The side effects of a second degree burn are more severe than those of a first degree, tricking people into thinking it does more damage. Also called partial-thickness burns, these are identified by the penetrated depth of the skin’s layers. This type of sunburn can swell and blister, which may indicate damage to deep skin layers and nerve endings. Second-degree burns may also radiate heat from the skin’s surface and produce fluids from the blisters. In severe cases, an individual with a second-degree sunburn may experience fever, vomiting, dehydration and secondary infection, which often lead to hospitalization.

Although the side effects of varying degrees of burns are vastly different, the lasting impact is the same. UVR has been absorbed, which causes damage to the cell’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which in turn triggers a cellular response such as proliferation, toxic change, mutation or death. Although the degree of the burn impacts the likeliness of spreading to further levels, all types of burns create a biological change in the skin’s DNA; A sunburned skin cell viewed under a microscope, regardless of the layer from which it is taken, looks like a cancer cell. 

Protect yourself and your family by understanding the difference between short and long term symptoms. Be safe. Be SunAWARE.

Alicia Walker

Summer InternSunburn CellsSunburn Diagram



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