This New Study Discovered Something Surprising About Your Risk For Sunburn

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
You can find a perfectly good sunscreen at the drugstore for $7 or less, so the fact that sunburn-related trips to the ER cost the United States millions of dollars every year doesn’t quite add up. A recent report published in JAMA Dermatology revealed that an estimated 33,826 visits to emergency departments in 2013 alone set the US back $11.2 million — a hell of a lot of money to pay for a condition that should be easy to avoid.
A team of researchers conducted a 15-year study of the demographics and characteristics of 200 individuals who were admitted to two major Boston-area hospitals (and the urgent-care clinics associated with them) for sunburn treatment, in hopes that by learning more about the patient population, they’d be able to better guide prevention efforts in the future.
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In a surprise twist, they didn’t wrap up the study by concluding that we’re a country of fools who defy doctor’s orders against our best interest — rather, the discoveries were much more insightful. Psychiatric illness was an associated characteristic in 9.3% of the sunburn patients, and another 6.4% admitted to alcohol use. Homelessness was also found to be a contributing factor, with 13 of the patients living in shelters at the time.
The researchers said that the link between these characteristics and sunburn visits “highlights a vulnerable population that should be targeted through public health initiatives.” In fact, only a small minority of the patients actually required IV fluids, which suggests that most of the symptoms could have been treated through over-the-counter medications and topicals. Yet less than half the cases involved any follow-up sun-protection counseling, despite research that suggests “significant behavioral intervention” could prove to help sunburn incidents from recurring.
More and more cities across the US are coming to terms with the risks of sun exposure, and have started providing free sunscreen dispensers and other preventative measures to ensure that even its most disadvantaged citizens are safe. The improvements are encouraging, but it's still more important than ever to increase awareness. As we all know, a blistering sunburn is far from the worst thing that can happen.