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Forget the Aloe, Sunburn Pain Secret Unlocked by Scientists


The days of slathering aloe vera on a blistering sunburn may be over. Scientists have identified a new molecule that controls sunburn pain – a discovery that could lead to finding a cure to this common summer discomfort.

In the summer when the skin is exposed to long hours of sunlight the occurrence of a sunburn is common. The powerful ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate the skin cells, causing damage and cellular death. This then sends signals in your body to increase blood flow and send millions of cells to the area to try and repair the damage which causes redness, warmth and pain.

However, up until now there has been very little that medications can due to ease this type of discomfort. Common therapies such as aloe vera, ibuprofen, aspirin, or Tylenol have proven to be grossly inadequate in calming the burn.

In their study, London researchers recruited volunteers who agreed to have small parts of their skin exposed to UV radiation creating a sunburn. When the pain from the burn peaked (1-2 days after the exposure) biopsies were taken from the affected skin areas.

In examining the burn samples the researchers discovered large amounts of a specific molecule called CXCL5 were present in the tissues. This molecule is a part of a family of chemokines which help bring inflammation to damaged cells and thus are responsible for producing pain. By identifying this molecule researchers now know exactly why sunburns are so painful – and how to treat it.

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The researchers gave large amounts of CXCL5 to rats, and then treated them with antibodies to the molecule which successfully neutralized the pain source.

Although this was achieved in rats, the study authors believe that developing an antibody safe in humans could likely be achieved with ease.

"Giving an antibody is quite an attractive treatment strategy, because even though you have to inject it... the antibody then often hangs around for weeks, and it almost totally blocks the availability of the factors it binds to," explained one of the study's authors Stephen McMahon from the Wolfson Centre for age-related diseases at King's College London.

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The researchers also say that this type of therapy is not just limited to sunburn pain and in fact many types of pain treatment could be created from this discovery. “This study isn't just about sunburn. More broadly we have identified a mediator that may be important in a variety of different pains states -- particularly those associated with inflammation -- and there are lots of those out there, for example in arthritis," McMahon told Reuters in an interview.

Although a treatment for sunburn pain is welcomed, experts warn that this it should used carefully as to not discourage protecting oneself from a burn in the first place. Excessive UV exposure can cause damage to the skin, premature aging, and cancer. Protective clothing such as hats and long sleeves should always be used in addition to sunscreen while being exposed to sunlight.

This study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.