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What can I do About Sunburn Swelling?

By Angela Crout-Mitchell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Administering simple first aid treatments as soon as possible after you get sunburned can help ease the pain and swelling associated with it. It may also be able to reduce the long-term negative effects of a sunburn, such as skin damage. The most common treatments for sunburn swelling include drinking lots of water, taking cooling baths, and using Over-The-Counter (OTC) pain medications and topical ointments. Combining these remedies often helps reduce symptoms more quickly.

Types of Sunburn

There are three degrees of sunburn severity. First and second degree burns are associated with redness and swelling, while third degree burns have fluid-filled blisters as well. It's best to avoid getting sunburned as much as possible, as it can cause skin cancer. Taking preventative measures, like avoiding being out during the hottest times of day, wearing a hat and protective clothing in the sun and the use of sunscreens, can help keep you from getting burned.


One of the most simple treatments for sunburn swelling is hydration. Like any burn, a sunburn causes a lack of moisture in the affected tissue, and it can take a few applications of water or moisturizer to get your skin back to its normal state. Taking a cool or lukewarm bath or shower to reduce the swelling and allow your skin to absorb some moisture often helps. Placing a cool, wet cloth on your skin can also alleviate the sunburn swelling. You should make sure to drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids to rehydrate after time in the sun.

Creams, Ointments, and Alternative Treatments

Creams or aloe vera gels can help moisturize skin and reduce swelling. You can also soak some cotton balls with witch hazel and gently rub them over your skin to cool it. To eliminate the sting of the sunburn, try placing cool, wet tea bags on top of it. Take care not to pop any blisters, and if you experience severe pain and swelling, seek medical attention.

Medical Treatments

Topical and oral OTC medications containing both painkillers and anti-inflammatory agents can help with very painful sunburn swelling. Products containing aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen are popular choices, as many people find that these products provide faster relief for swelling and pain than alternative treatments. You can also try calamine lotion or a low potency corticosteroid cream, hydrocortisone, to help with any itching and burning. Make sure to read the instructions on any medications before using them, since some types can interact with certain health conditions or cause gastrointestinal problems. If in doubt, discuss things with a pharmacist or health care practitioner first.

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Discussion Comments

By anon947951 — On Apr 28, 2014

I got a severe sunburn on my face, which at the start, only went red and had a few blisters. Then, six days later, then it got worse. I had a lot more blisters on my forehead, cheeks, nose and chin, with a little swelling. After some advice from a pharmacist, I was advised to take ibuprofen (otherwise known as neurofen in Australia) to help with the swelling, and to put a low strength steroid cream on the blisters. Big mistake!

It turns out I'm allergic to Neurofen (I hadn't taken it before), and within 24 hours, my whole face had swelled up, to the point that it was going to swell my airways as well. I ended up at the ER because of it. All the cream did was to make the blisters leak out a who lot of clear fluid/pus. I ended up on a dose of Prenisolone just to counteract the effects of the Neurofen and cream. It took a couple of weeks for everything to even start to become normal.

Just everyone, be really careful in this situation, because even seemingly innocent things can turn out to be dangerous. Guess I won't be going out in the sun without the sunscreen and a hat. I learned the hard way.

By popcorn — On Jul 18, 2011

If you get a sunburn that is bad enough to cause swelling you are looking at least a week or so of aftercare.

Right after the burn Solarcaine-type products can be sprayed on the skin after a cold bath to relive some of the pain. Though be warned, Solarcaine comes on very cold and can be a bit shocking to the system so test it first on a small area to see if you can take it.

During the week or so after your bad burn try taking soothing oatmeal baths to moisturize and soothe your skin. Take some painkillers as needed and avoid the sun until you're all better.

By lonelygod — On Jul 17, 2011

The absolute worst sunburn I ever had was after a day spent snorkeling. I did have on waterproof sunscreen but it never occurred to me that the water on my back was acting like a mirror reflecting the sun onto my skin.

Later that night I wasn't able to lay down my back hurt so much. My skin felt hot to the touch and I am positive I suffered from some serious sunburn swelling. I found that a cool shower and drinking lots of water seemed to help my body recover.

As mentioned by others, an after-sun aloe vera lotion is amazing. It completely soothed my burn.

By zeak4hands — On Jul 17, 2011

@MissCourt - Aloe vera is a must for home treatment, but I use it in combination with coconut oil. The coconut oil absorbs into your skin and keeps it moist. Just make sure you add a layer of coconut oil after the aloe, since it keeps aloe from absorbing into your skin right away.

Cool rags are a great idea too, but I actually make peppermint tea, ice it and use it instead of water. It feels nice on sunburns and smells great. When I get a really bad sunburn – which is rare – I just sit and watch my favorite TV shows covered in peppermint scented rags.

By MissCourt — On Jul 16, 2011

When I was about 17 years old, I got the worst burn of my life (so far)! I had slathered myself in waterproof sunscreen and spent all day in the pool. By the night night rolled around, I was severely burnt on my shoulders, back, arms and face.

The only part that had swelling and blisters were my shoulders, so I decided not to visit the doctor. I did fine at home actually. I gently rubbed aloe vera on all of my burns and then placed cool rags on my shoulders. I took aspirin every four hours and I drank a lot of ice water too. I didn't do any more swimming that summer though.

By ysmina — On Jul 16, 2011

As far as I know, if a sunburn starts swelling soon after, it's probably a second or third degree burn. You should go see a doctor as soon as possible.

My recommendation would be to take some aspirin and if there is a lot of pain, pain reliever. I experienced sun burn swelling once. The swelling was mainly around my legs and feet. I did cool water showers and everything and wore shorts so that nothing would touch my skin. But I was in so much pain that I had to take aspirin.

It turns out aspirin was a good idea. The doctor said that the swelling can cause circulation problems, especially if it's in the feet. Aspirin helps improve circulation so it might prevent further complications.

By discographer — On Jul 15, 2011

When I get sunburns I do a home remedy of cool yogurt or milk compresses. It relieves the burning sensations and I think there are enzymes in the yogurt that are beneficial to the skin and help it heal as well.

I use these remedies for regular sunburn though. If there is swelling and blisters, this remedy might or might not work. You should probably avoid it if there is an opening in the skin. But if it is just swollen (I think the medical term for it is edema), the yogurt or milk will help it cool down and will provide some relief at least in the short term until you can visit the doctor and get other treatments.

By burcinc — On Jul 15, 2011

I was badly sunburnt last week during an all day event outside. I forgot to put on my sun protection cream in the morning. When I got home in the evening, my skin was all red and some areas started to look like it was swelling.

My mom gave me some aloe vera gel medicine to apply on my burns. It has lidocaine hydrochloride in it which is an external analgesic. I have to say that it has worked wonders for me. Within half an hour, the pain decreased and the swelling started to go down. I applied it for about three days and my skin looks much better now.

Some brands also have aloe vera gels to use after sun exposure, but they don't actually have any medication in it. We have some of that at home as well. The one you want for sunburn and swelling is the one with lidocaine hydrochloride and you can only find that in the pharmacy section of stores. Just check the ingredients to make sure it is there. I think everyone should keep a bottle of it at home for emergencies.

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