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What happens to your skin when you get sunburnt? A dermatologist explains

November 22, 2019

What happens to your skin when you get sunburnt? A dermatologist explains

Too many Australians pay with their lives for their past sun exposure, with over 2000 dying from skin cancer each year. The good news is skin cancer is primarily a preventable cancer. That’s why this week, as part of National Skin Cancer Action Week, we are urging Australians to be aware that the sunburn you suffer when you are young can lead to skin cancer further down the track.

One role of the Australasian College of Dermatologists is to provide guidance to the community on the dangers of sunburn and how to reduce your risk of skin cancer. We can provide guidance on how to check your own skin and when and where to seek advice from a health professional.

Dermatologists are specialists trained in the diagnosis and treatment of all skin diseases including skin cancer. People should discuss referral to a dermatologist with their General Practitioner (GP) if they have a suspicious mole or spot or are at high risk of skin cancer.

Australia has a very high incidence of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma). This is predominantly due to the high levels of everyday UV exposure and a proportion of the population with fair skin, making sun protection important. Survival rates for skin cancer have improved with earlier detection and better treatment options; however, survival rates remain low for skin cancers that are diagnosed at an advanced stage. The earlier that skin cancer is diagnosed and treated, the greater the chance of survival.

When sunburn occurs, inflammatory chemicals are released in the skin causing blood vessels to dilate and thus cause redness. Other chemicals cause pain and swelling. In very simple terms, DNA in cells may be damaged, and, if not repaired by the body repeatedly over time, abnormal cells may occur, leading to cancer.

It is important to know your personal risk of skin cancer. The single greatest risk factor for skin cancer is excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or from solariums. Other risk factors include fair skin and hair; a high number of common or unusual moles; a weakened immune system; a family history of melanoma; and previous personal diagnosis of melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer.

It is important to be familiar with your skin. Perform self-examinations of your whole body, including scalp, hands and feet, with a hand mirror in front of a bathroom wall mirror. Look for changes in new moles and spots; existing moles which increase in size, change colour or become irregular; any mole or spot that becomes raised, lumpy, scaly or ulcerated; red moles that are firm and enlarging; any mole or spot that itches, bleeds or weeps; and any spot that looks different from the others.

Dermatologists have expertise in early detection and are trained to recognise and differentiate between changes in the skin that may indicate cancer. They have specialist knowledge and experience of the broad range of therapeutic approaches used to treat specific tumour types.

Don’t forget to look after yourself and your family this summer by getting your skin checked, knowing your skin cancer risk and checking with your GP if you need further specialist advice from a dermatologist.

For further information on the risk factors of skin cancer, visit: