Have a sunburn or rash? Where to go for care

July 19th, 2019
A photo of a child being sprayed with sunscreen.
When you have a sunburn or rash, making the right choice about whether to provide treatment at home or seek care at a facility could save you time and money. Photo: Getty images.

During the summer, our skin is exposed to all sorts of irritants. Maybe you have an itchy, irritating rash. Maybe you forgot the sunscreen and got a sunburn. How do you get some relief?

Rashes and sunburns both affect the largest organ in our body – the skin – but when it comes to treatment, different approaches may apply, said Dr. Kalindi Batra, who practices family medicine at the UCHealth Primary Care Clinic – Sterling Ranch.

“Generally speaking, for all dermatological ailments, a visit to the emergency room is only necessary if the rash or sunburn is all over your body and is accompanied by other symptoms, like fever. Sunburn can be pretty severe if it involves a large area of your body,” Batra said.

Rashes

Self-care: “If the rash is small, and stays small, and you’re not having any other symptoms, like fever, you can treat it yourself,” she said. “Give home remedies a chance.”

But it can also depend on the cause of the rash.

“Allergies in medications can play a huge role. So if someone is allergic to something, be it a medicine or food, even if it starts small but then grows, it is time to seek a higher level of care,’’ Batra said.

A drug eruption can be “pretty dangerous,” she added.

Doctor: Your primary care physician will ask, “What are your allergies? What medications are you taking?” and also will take into account whether you are being treated for something, like cancer, she said.

“Blistering is a more serious rash and can indicate a more serious condition,” she added. That’s when “we would recommend a higher level of care. Particularly if involves the mouth, genitals or eyes – any of the mucus membranes.”

If a rash is accompanied by pain, such as occurs with shingles, it can sometimes be treated with over-the-counter remedies. But if that is not effective, it’s time to seek your doctor for pain control, she advised.

Also seek medical care if there are signs or symptoms of infection, Batra said.

a photo of Dr. Kalindi Batra
Dr. Kalindi Batra

“Sometimes we’ll get a rash when gardening or mowing the lawn or hiking and we start to scratch it because it itches. If you start to notice redness, swelling or drainage, seek care,” she said.

Urgent Care: “I think most rashes can be treated in the primary care setting,” she said, adding that urgent care is for those after-hours situations, when you can’t see your physician but you think you need attention. Urgent care can offer IV fluids and antibiotics if needed.

Emergency room:  If you think it’s a drug eruption or if it’s involving the mucus membranes, or spreading rapidly, however, and your physician isn’t available, you probably should go to the ER, she said.

“Certainly, go if it’s covering all or most of your body, if you have a high fever (102 degrees or more), or if you possibly need to be quarantined,” she urged. Most primary care and urgent care situations can’t offer the quarantine option if you have something contagious, like the measles.

And “if it starts suddenly, spreads rapidly and starts to involve airway, mouth or breathing, it’s not just worth an ER visit, but possibly a 911 call,” she said. Such symptoms could indicate there’s an allergy component, perhaps to a drug. That needs immediate treatment and “can be life-threatening.”

Sunburn

Self-care: “Certainly, if the sunburn is mild, does not have blisters and just involves a small portion of your body, it’s fine to treat yourself,” Batra sad.

Sunburn treated at home should start to improve quickly. If not, you may need to get medical attention, she added. “It also can turn into an infected rash, especially in children, who might be more likely to scratch it,” Batra said.

Doctor: If, after getting a sunburn, you develop flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and headache, it could be having “a systemic effect. Your organs are responding to the increased temperature and you may need treatment,” Batra said.

These symptoms are more likely when a large portion of the body is affected by sunburn, she added.

Urgent Care: When you can’t see your primary care physician, then consider urgent care, she said. But they don’t always have accessible hours, either.

Emergency Room: “The ER is always open. It’s for after-after hours,” she said. If you are having serious symptoms, or a really bad sunburn over a large part of your body that needs attention right away, then go to the ER,” she said. “Essentially, sunburn creates an inflammatory response, when it happens body-wide it can be life-threatening.”

Other advice: “The goal is not to get sunburned in the first place,” she advised. “A lot of people think because it’s winter or spring, and they’re outside in the snow, that they can’t get sunburned. They can.”

Prevention is key, she said. She practices what she preaches, carries sunblock and lip balm in her car, and wears a hat, sunglasses and appropriate clothing when she’s out in the sun.

Babies younger than six months should never be exposed to direct sunlight, she added. Read the directions on your sunscreen to see how often it should be applied.

“SPF50 does not mean it’s going to protect you all day,” she said.

“It means planning. Don’t just jump in the car and head out to activities. Living here in Colorado, here’s the deal: You’re always at risk of sunburn.”

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs and a regular contributor to UCHealth Today. She has written travel articles for major U.S. newspapers and national, regional and local magazines. She spent 32 years as an award-winning writer, reporter and editor for The Gazette in Colorado Springs.