Sunburn a Triple Threat for Runners: Pain, Blisters, Cancer


Sunburn is every runner’s and outdoor athletes common competitor. We love the outdoors! It is the fresh air, exercise, friends, games, and sports that draws us out into the open and great, sun filled skies. While there you must be conscious of the damage that does result from undue and over exposure to the sun. Honestly, no one can no longer deny what happens to your fresh and smooth when prolonged sun damage is allowed to happen. Skin, when harmed by the natural sun or ultraviolet light from tanning beds, can have a long lasting negative result.

Incidences of Sunburn among runners

As weather patterns keep changing, runners tend to have new challenges every day. Nowadays summers are reported to be experiencing a rise in temperatures. This puts runners under the risk of getting sunburns and blisters. In fact, athletes are now complaining that the sun is getting hotter and running outdoors during summer is proving a hard task. Some have reported that every year they are getting bad sunburns and blisters when they are out doing long runs.

Runners who have not suffered blisters might not realize the implications of running long hours in the sun. However, it is important to realize that heat stroke can cause immediate deaths to athletes. So the next time you go running outdoors when the sun is blazing you need to take it seriously.

According to experts, runners should try to avoid the fierce sun by running early in the morning when it is cooler or late in the afternoon and at night.  When the temperatures are lower, there is no risk of getting sunburns and associated blisters.  When athletes are training for a marathon, they may be compelled to run hundreds of hours in the sun. This puts them at the risk of sun hazards as they are exposed to UV radiation and this can cause visible damage to their skin.

One of the major mistakes that runners do is fails to plan properly. Runners have been observed to think there are some few months that the sun gets hotter and it is only in such periods that they consider using sun protection, this is risky. Sports experts have also complained that some runners fail completely to use the sun protection. Other runners do not have a good schedule of the hours they will be spending outdoors, in such a case, they fail to apply sunscreen or wear protective gear. The next time you go running outdoors, it is advisable to have a schedule, plan on the most suitable hours you will be running and make sure to use the best protection you can manage to avoid getting sunburns and sun blisters.


What is sunburn

Sunburn a natural response of the skin to protect itself from extreme ultraviolet (UV) exposure.  When you have sunburns, it might mean your skin has been severely damaged. Mostly the damage happens even after a short time exposure to ultraviolet rays. The sunburns are a form of a defense system against the harmful rays.

When you get your skin damaged by the rays, it may tend to have red coloration. Sometimes it may appear as swollen and tend to be painful. This is determined by how sensitive your skin is and the intensity the UV exposure. The sunburn can be mild or severe depending on the rays your skin has been exposed to.

When the redness appears in the skin, it means that the body is responding to the damage and is now having some inflammation and is trying to repair it this results in diluting of the blood vessels. Then the skin will lose most of its moisture and hydration; this will cause you to feel strange tightness on your skin. Eventually the skin cell will start to thicken, and there will be the production of melanin which will make you appear tanned; basically, this means your skin is trying to stop the UV rays from causing more damage. If the skin damage is happening to the extreme, it might lead to the distraction of  DNA composition of the cells.

Scientific explanation of  sunburns

Science has tried to differentiate sunburns from thermal burns. By thermal burns, it means that the heat from the sun is the one burning the skin. However, scientists confirm that it is the infrared radiation that causes the harm. Science describes sunburn as an acute toxic reaction that is caused by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Such a reaction often results to cutaneous redness, swelling, and pain on the skin.

According to Jeffrey Sobbel, a professor of dermatology and director of Photomedicine at Tufts University school of Medicine, there is no specific known mechanism under which sunburns occurs. He reports that during the process of the radiation which causes the sunburns, there are complex chemical reactions and pathways often occurs leading to varying clinical symptoms.

According to Sobbel the UV rays damages the molecules in the skin, and this can lead to damage of the DNA composition.

A major consequence for the sunburn is the production of different proteins and enzymes. The proteins result in dilation of the cutaneous blood vessels and recruitment of inflammatory cells. This is what causes the swelling, redness, and pain. Sunburn does not appear immediately after the exposure, and sometimes it may take up to 6 hours for these proteins to generate. Too much exposure to UV rays may cause DNA mutation, which leads to skin cancer.

Dangers of overexposure to sun rays

When runners are exposed to solar radiation for long hours, the skin will turn red, tender, swollen and may develop acute pain. When the runner has blisters, which are an advanced level of the sunburns, the pain may become more pronounced, and the runner might have a low-grade fever. Eventually, in an attempt to repair the damage, the skin may start to shed or peel off. The skin may also suffer dehydration in addition to burns. The long-term exposure to sun radiation can result in skin cancer. Failure to have exposure to sunlight is reported to cause depletion of vitamin D levels in the skin. Extreme sunlight is what causes trouble to runner’s skin.

Deane Kastor, the fastest woman marathoner in American history, was once diagnosed with malignant melanoma-  a serious form of skin cancer. She says sun protection is necessary for all runner and they should take it seriously. Kastor claims she had been a stickler in her younger years but in her old age, she is paying for it. This closely relates to a study that found that marathoners are at the risk of getting abnormal moles and lesion that the non-marathoners. This calls for runners to be more serious with the sun protection. In fact, skin cancer is one of the most prevalent cancers in America and one in every five American are at risk of suffering it at one point during their lifetime.

Who is vulnerable to sunburns

People who have skin disorder like albinism and those who have a fair skin are at more risk of suffering from sunburns. Skin types can be classified in varying categories based on their susceptibility to sunburn. This classification is done on skin colors ranging from fair to black:

Type 1 and 2 are highly susceptible to sunburn and is made of individuals with very fair skin, and they may tend to be pale or milky white. Blonde-haired people, red hair and freckles fall under this class. Runners in this category can suffer sunburns in less than one hour of exposure to sun rays. Runners in this category often suffer blister, and they never have their skin tanned.

For type 2 people their skin is very light brown and have possible freckles. They have the risk of burning in the sun, and they can develop a light tan.

Skin type 3 and 4 are described as moderately susceptible to sunburn. Type 3 is for runners or individuals who are average Caucasian, and they are slightly brown than the type 2. They can suffer moderate sunburn and a light brown turn

Type 4 are olive colored individuals, they only suffer minor sunburn, and they often get a moderate tan.

Then there is the type 5 and type 6 they have minimal or not susceptible to sunburns. This class is for persons who are brown skin to black, and they rarely suffer from sunburns, but they can get a dark tan. The blacks never get sunburned

Skin type cannot be determined by looking at the color of the skin. It can be established by analyzing on how fast a person suffers burns and how easily they tan.

Sun Blisters

When your skin is sensitive especially for skin type 1 and 2, and you have prolonged exposure to sunlight you are at a high risk of suffering sunburn blisters. Typically a blister appeasing the skin after it has suffered from severe sunburns. The blister may be visible after several hours of sunlight exposure. So when a runner spends long hours outdoor they might feel the blisters develop several hours later or a day after.

The blisters may tend to be extremely painful, and this pain usually starts to subside after 48 hours. The healing of the blister may take much longer. Eventually when they fade you may be left with darker or lighter spots that can last up to 12 months.

Sun blisters usually occur as Pocket Of fluid and forms in the upper layers of the skin. When you have blisters, it is an indication that your skin has been damaged. Blisters can develop in any part of the body, which has been exposed to the extreme sun radiation. Runners usually have blisters on the legs, shoulders, face, lips, legs, and thighs.

The fluid that develops under the skin when you have blisters is meant to cushion the tissues underneath. The fluid will protect the tissues from more damage and will allow it to heal.

The fluid that is associated with blisters is usually clear but once it inflamed or infected a runner can have the fluid turn to blood or pus. In this case, the blisters will be extremely painful.

What causes blisters

Blisters among runners and athletes occur as a skin reaction when the runner is exposed to excessive heat.

  • Skin blisters can occur as an allergic reaction an insect bite or sting. Coming into contact with substances such as cosmetics, detergents, and solvents may be possible causes of blisters.
  • Blisters may occur as a result of friction. When sportsmen wear loose fitting shoes, and they are very active in a sporting activity they have the risk of getting the blisters.
  • When the skin is rubbed for a long period, or there is intense rubbing for a short period it is possible to have blisters.
  • Friction occurs on hands and feet as a result of rubbing against shoes and hand held equipment.
  • When you have moist skin and working in warmer conditions with handheld sporting equipment or poor-fitting gear you are at risk of getting blisters.

Blisters despite being painful, they heal naturally on their own. Healing will involve a new skin growing underneath the blister, and the body will gradually reabsorb the fluid in the blister. The skin on top will eventually dry and peel off.

When to see a doctor

A runner should consider visiting a physician when:

  • The blister becomes painful, red and hot.
  • Blisters keep reappearing
  • Are caused by severe sunburn, burns, scalds or an allergic reaction
  • Has a blister as a result of an insect bite or sting.
  • Have blisters on unusual places like the lips, eyelids or inside the mouth.

Treatment for blisters may involve being prescribed with antibiotics.

As a rule of thumb, you should never pick a blistered skin. It is good to leave blister to heal on their own unless they are inflamed and infected. If they have blood or pus, your doctor will find a way to clean them. In case they have clear fluid, do not pop them as it can make them have an infection, and you might suffer a long lasting scar.  The blister will heal naturally, and they should be handled gently.

Causes of sunburns

Sunburn is the reaction of the body to direct DNA damage, and it can result to excitation of the DNA by UV-B light.  The damages will be detected by the body, and a defense mechanism will occur including the DNA repair of the ruined tissues and skin.  The body may produce more melanin in an attempt to prevent further damage to the skin. The melanin produced will transform UV.

What is Melanin?

However, it is the level of melanin in the skin that determines why some people get sunburn or sustain e severe burns. Melanin gives your skin its color. Generally ,individuals who have dark skin have more melanin while people with light-skin have less. Here is how melanin makes your skin burn or tan.

Your body produces melanin to protect the deeper layers of your skin from external damage.   Anytime when your skin gets damaged by sun’s rays, it makes, even more, melanin to protect your skin effectively well from getting damaged.   This causes the skin to change color fast.   Light-skinned human beings usually turn redder or burn, anytime they go in the sun.   Dark-skinned people often turn darker brown or tan whenever they go in the sun.

Symptoms of sunburns and blisters

  • Red, sore skin. This may take 12 – 24 hours to develop
  • Skin may tend to be warm and tender
  • The skin may start to Flake and peel off after some days
  • An inflamed skin that is usually accompanied by pain, headache, tenderness swelling and blistering
  • Extreme dryness or wrinkling of the skin
  • Athletes who suffer extreme sunburns and sunburns may suffer vomiting, weakness
  • The shock related with this complication can lead to low blood pressure and fainting.
  • Runners may also suffer fever and fatigue
  • Pain due to blistering can last to up to 72 hours


Diagnosis of sunburns

Runners who suffer mild sunburn may not need to visit a doctor.  However, for severe sunburns runners will definitely need to see a doctor . in this case, the doctor will evaluate your medical history and assess the symptoms. A physical exam will be conducted, sometimes if the burns are severe, the runner will have to be attended by a specialist doctor who deals with skin disorders or a dermatologist.

What to do is your skin is peeling or blistering

When you have suffered sunburns or blistering it is recommended to use thick moisturizers such as  Sudocrem will help support the skin and create a barrier against an infection.

The peeling of the skin indicates the body is trying to do away with the skin cells that have been killed by the sun. The peeling of skin is also important as the body is getting rid of damaged cells and if the cells are not removed from the body, they can turn cancerous.  It is therefore advisable to try cleaning your skin with mild antiseptics such as Oilatum. Such antiseptic will eliminate further damage and infection to the skin. When there is the mass death of cells, runners may experience damaged skin peeling off, and this will gradually be replaced by the growth of newer cells under these layers.

For athletes who experience itching and pain on the sunburns its recommend to use mild hydrocortisone, which will help, reduce the uncomfortable feeling.

  • Blisters should not be disturbed unless they are large where they can be drained by nicking them at the lower pole with a sterile pin.
  • The inside of the blister is usually raw. Therefore the application of antiseptic should be done with great caution.
  • In case the athlete has a blister or sunburns they should wear loose baggy clothe as and stay away from the sun.

Tips for running outdoors and how to avoid sunburns and blisters

  • Run early in the morning or late in the evening. Most of the skin damage occurs when you are exposed to exceeding sun rays that occur between 10 am 3 pm.
  • Always use proper fitting sporting gear and of recommended material. Poor fitting shoes and rough, tight material may cause blistering of the skin.
  • Wear sun block under the T-shirt. When you are running under the sun, and there is sweating the T-shirt will tend to lose its SPF (Sun protection factor). The sun block will be useful in protecting your skin
  • Wear t-shirts that have built-in sun protection. Athletic and running specialty store usually have a good supply of such t-shirts.
  • Try washing the sporting clothes with Sunguard. This unique dye will give your running gear and SPF of more than 30.
  • When running outdoors always protect your face by wearing sunscreen and try to wear hats.
  • Protect the scalp by wearing a cap and trying to limit yourself to the hours you run outdoors.
  • Put on sun block on legs, and all exposed parts of the body.

Sunburn relief and medication

  • The first and basic measure to consider after suffering sunburn is to get out of the sun,
  • Then you should cover up the affected area and stay in a cooler environment until you are healed
  • The pain from sunburn and blisters can be stopped by use of Acetaminophen and NSAIDs
  • There are anesthetic cream and gels that offer temper relief. They are blue in color, and they have benzocaine and lidocaine as their ingredients
  • Aloe based products are useful in cooling and soothing the damaged skin
  • Moisturizers will help to keep the skin from drying out and tightening up
  • It is advisable to wear cotton clothing that allows your skin to breathe especially when you have suffered a sunburn or a blister
  • Taking over the counter pain relief is recommended. For instance, analgesia and painkillers can help relieve pain and reduce inflammation caused by sunburns.
  • Ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be useful in relieving the sunburn
  • Paracetamol is also a good choice though it will not heal the inflammation
  • To cool the skin apply a cool compressor such as a towel dampened with cool water for 15 minutes. You can also consider taking a cool bath or shower
  • When you take a shower, ensure the water is flowing gently and not in full power.
  • A bath would be more convenient especially when you are suffering from blisters.
  • Do not rub your skin with a towel when you have inflamed sunburn or painful blisters
  • Use unperfumed cream or lotion to soothe the skin after bath or shower
  • Repeated use of lotion and creams will reduce the peeling appearance and should be continued for several weeks
  • Gels and lotions containing aloe Vera and soy can be useful in soothing the skin.
  • Aloe Vera has a healing capability for the inflammation
  • Avoid using creams that have petroleum as they trap heat and can cause skin irritation
  • When you have sunburns, you should drink a lot of water to keep the body hydrated and help the body recover.
  • Runners should avoid alcohol when they have sunburns and blisters as it can worsen the dehydration
  • Never pop blisters
  • Seek medical attention if you have nausea, dizziness or severe pain as a result of the sunburns

Treatment of sunburns and blisters

Treatment usually entails doing activities to do quick and effective prevention of further damage to the affected cells. The most effective strategy for treating sunburns involves acting quickly. The earlier the response, the faster and more effective the treatment will be.

When sunburns are left untreated, they can lead to permanent skin damage, scarring and in extreme cases, the patient may suffer skin cancer.

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, taking of plenty of fluids can help to treat in treating the sunburns.
  • Additionally, physicians can use cool compresses, burrow solution soaks and some high moisturizing creams and lotion to treat the sunburn and blisters.
  • The sunburns and blisters can be treated by application of aloe Vera and vitamin to reduce inflammation. Additionally, Hydrocortisone  lotion and gel can be used to reduce itching and inflammation.
  • When the sunburn is extreme, oral steroids can be prescribed for several days. However, when a patient has blisters steroids should not be used as they may increase the risk of infection.
  • When a patient is suffering from dehydration, it is necessary to give him or her plenty of fluids, it will also help them to reduce heat stress.
  • When you have blisters, you should leave them to heal without disturbing them. Extra care should be taken to protect the damaged skin.
  • When the sunburn are severe patient may be admitted to hospital, and in some cases, they may be taken to hospital’s burn unit.


Preventing sunburns

Sunscreens and sunblocks are the best-known ways to protect from sunburns. These products have a sun protection factor (SPF) rating, which is their ability to suppress sunburn. The higher the SPF rating, the lower the amount of direct DNA damage.

Sunscreens rated SPF 10 blocks 90% of the rays that cause skin damage, while SPF 20 will block 95% of the rays.  Runners should also choose sunscreens with broad-spectrum protection as they protect against both UVA and UVB radiation. To get the best out these sunscreens, it is advisable to apply 30 minutes before the exposure; then you will need to reapply 30 minutes after the exposure begins.

There are common mistakes that runners do with the sunscreen and sun protection. Here are the mistakes and ways in which runners can avoid them.  Runners can also protect themselves by wearing clothing that covers most of their skin when they are running outdoors.  Long sleeved t-shirts that are tightly woven would work best in protecting against the sunrays.

Wearing caps and wide-brimmed hats will also help to protect you from extreme sun rays.

Runners with fairly light skin can limit the hour they spend in the sun, especially if its and the middle of summer. Those who are darker can stay in the sun for longer duration without the risk of getting skin damage

Use antioxidants to build internal sunscreen, products like Astaxanthin has been proved to offer effective protection against sun damage. Take them frequently as a supplement. Other antioxidants that you can use include lycopene, and resveratrol.

  • Failing to use sun protection at all- whenever a runner is exposed to direct sunlight they should apply some sun protection. You need to be aware you are not protecting yourself from the sun but the sun radiation that causes skin damage. These rays are harmful and have many dangers associated with it.


  • You got the wrong SPF – it is recommended to use products that have an SPF value of 30 and above.
  • Failing to look at ingredients of sun protection products- besides the SPF value, runners need to be aware of the elements used to make the products. Some ingredients might not work well with your skin.
  • Avoid hypoallergenic sunscreen- the use of sunscreen with certain chemical composition may cause you to develop an allergic reaction. You will also need to know the sensitivity of your skin to different products; this will help to avoid allergies and other complications.
  • Failing to apply in advance- applying 30 minutes before heading out will make the lotion to settle properly, get absorbed and provide better protection.
  • Failing to apply enough- if you want to get the best protection, ensure you apply enough to all exposed areas.
  • You don’t reapply- no sunscreen will last you the whole day, it is, therefore, necessary to reapply whenever you are running outdoors. The activities that involve excessive sweating require more application of sunscreen.
  • You don’t check expiry date- it is very important to check the expiry date of products. Using sun protection products that have been laying around your house for ling might lead to skin issues and may cause an infection.


Useful remedies for treating sunburns

  • Applying organic coconut oil to the areas of your skin would help to reduce skin damage. Adding antioxidants like the Astaxanthin to the organic oils would improve their capability of sun protection.
  • Checking on your diet is important to effectively protect o skin damage by the sun. Eating plants and organisms that have antioxidants like carotenoids is necessary for improving the skin protective capability. Consuming foods with vitamins A and C will make the skin be able to absorb light and protect it from sun overexposure.
  • Fruits like blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries will help improve your skin and its ability to protect from sun damage
  • You should avoid applying petroleum jelly as it can exacerbate the damaged skin. Most of the petroleum jelly products has some toxins that can affect the blisters or the sunburn
  • Aloe Vera has been proved to have healing aspect on the damaged will ease the pain and speed up tissues and cells regrowth.
  • Potatoes have starch compounds that can help soothe the sunburns. You can chop it into slices and pat don a piece of it on the sore-sunburned skin. Grating the potato and making a paste from it and then applying it on the sunburned skin would help to reduce the pain and offer a soothing effect.
  • Honey has been known to be an effective remedy for treating the skin. Honey can be applied as a topical salve for skin burn especially is applied as raw organic honey that is of high quality.
  • Vinegar has acetic acid that reduces pain, itching, and inflammation. Adding some apple cider vinegar in bathing water and soaking the burned skin on it can greatly aid in speeding up the healing.
  • Green tea has catechin and tannic acid that can help soothe the sunburn. You can use tea bags by cold compressing them on the burned skin. Drinking green tea regularly can offer sun-protective befits.
  • Other remedies for sunburns include cucumbers, lettuce and coriander oil. When applied on the sunburned skin they can help reduce the pain and offer a soothing effect. They will help promote the healing process.

Wrapping Up

It is common to experience peeling skin which is part of the healing process of sunburns. This is a natural stage in the journey back to normal skin formation. Nothing can be done to prevent or avoid it. Therefore, when sunburn is healing, ensure you cover the skin when outside or outdoors with woven fabrics.
However, severe cases of sunburn may require further treatment such as application of special burn cream and dressings or sometimes, a trip to the emergency room for treatments and attention before the condition worsens.

This article is solely for informational purposes and does not substitute for professional advice from an accredited doctor. The sources listed below backup several health claims made in this article. They are selectively pulled together from several scientific studies and numerous online data by medical professionals. However, regardless of the amount quality research put in, this article is only meant to inform. Please, do not treat the contents as professional medical advice. You should always talk to a doctor if you are experiencing unfamiliar skin peeling or skin tan in order to get an accurate diagnosis on time. Prevention is better than cure.