Sunburns are a common complication of sun exposure without proper protection from the ultraviolet (UV) rays. It is estimated that 34% of all adults have suffered a sunburn in the last year. The majority of these sunburns occur in adolescents and young adults.

The risk of sunburn depends on the amount of exposure to ultraviolet B rays. The intensity of these ultraviolet light is dependent on a lot of factors including latitude or proximity to the equator. Thankfully, living in Wisconsin, this does not tend to be the primary risk for sunburn; however, when Wisconsinites travel for vacation to Mexico or other countries closer to the equator, they need to remember that their risk of sunburn is significantly higher, even with the same amount of time in the sun.

The time of day also influences the risk, and midday poses the highest risk. Clouds can provide some protection against the UV rays, but significant quantities of UV light still filters through the clouds and can still cause sunburns.

The other significant risk factor for sunburns is reflection of the sun off other surfaces, specifically water, sand, and snow. Often in the wintertime we forget about protection from the sun, but this is especially important when going outside for winter activities as the snow can reflect up to 90% of the UV rays.

Tips for Sun Protection:

  1. Avoid direct sunlight. When outside, seek shady or sun-protected areas, especially between the time of 10 am-4 pm. Infants under 6 months old should NEVER be in direct sunlight.
  2. Wear protective clothing. In the summer months, this includes lightweight, tightly woven clothing, but also brimmed hats to protect the face.
  3. Use broad spectrum sunscreen.
    • Use SPF 30 or higher
    • Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes prior to sun exposure
    • Reapply at least every 2 hours
    • Reapply after swimming or sweating (even if “water resistant” SPF)



Frostbite is also a form of burn that occurs with injury of the tissue due to exposure to severe cold. Similar to thermal burns, there are different forms of frostbite.

Frostnip is a minor form of frostbite that results in mild redness, pain, and paresthesias (burning sensation) during rewarming of tissue exposed to prolonged cold temperatures or water. Although painful, this does not cause any permanent tissue damage and the tissue coloration will return to normal with rewarming.

More severe forms of frostbite will cause actual tissue damage, including skin discoloration and development of blisters that will require appropriate wound care to assure proper healing and prevention of infection, similar to thermal burns. The ears, nose, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes are areas most susceptible to frostbite.

Risk factors for developing frostbite includes anything that increases heat loss, including conductive heat loss such as exposure to wind (wind chill) or direct contact with water, ground, or metal. Heat loss occurs 25-30% faster when the body is submerged in cold/freezing water. Other risk factors include a person’s ability to combat cold stress. This can be influenced by alcohol use, dehydration, peripheral vascular disease, diabetes, and mental illness.

Frostbite can occur at any temperature below freezing, so proper precautions are necessary to help prevent it.

Tips for preventing frostbite:

  1. Minimize exposure to cold temperatures and cold water.

    • Avoid going outside immediately after showering or bathing.
    • Change out of wet clothing (such as after leaving the gym).
  2. Wear proper clothing.
    • Wear multiple layers.
    • The layer against the skin should wick moisture away from the skin.
    • Preferably, the outer layer of clothing should be moisture- and wind-resistant. 
  3. Check frequently for signs of frostbite. Especially in children, remove gloves and socks to check skin for redness or other discoloration that may indicate early signs of frostnip or frostbite.

This blog was authored by MFD's Medical Director Dr. Megan Gussick.
Photos: Kevin O'Mara (CC: BY-NC-ND 2.0), Gianna Montarsi (CC: BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This content is free for use with credit to the City of Madison - Fire and a link back to the original post.

Category: General, Your Safety