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Lessons learned from severe sunburn - SuffolkHealthPsy

Hello, dear blog readers. It’s been a while, I know. Certain aspects of my life, had called for my complete focus. 

I’m baaaaaack!

We recently returned home, from yet another fantastic Disney Cruise. (Oh, you Disney nay-sayers – don’t judge, until you have sailed on one of these glorious ships). I promise to write about our various experiences on the Disney Magic, Wonder, and Dream, in future posts.

I didn’t ask for this souvenir!

Sun protection is very important to me. Living in Miami for nearly 5 years, left me with vivid recollections of standing naked, arms stretched outwards, while my fastidious (female) internist inspected every inch of my skin, for signs of melanoma. Fortunately, I always passed every skin inspection, with flying colors.

On this vacation, I was careful to apply sunscreen and lip balm prior to any sun exposures. Or so, I believed…

All seemed well, until we returned home from our trip.

We retrieved our beloved mixed breed (beagle/basset/daschund) hound dog from the Pet Hotel, and picked up dinner from Panera Bread. Upon returning home, we settled down, for my son’s favorite leisure time activity of “dinner and a movie,” in the comfort of our living room.

That’s when it happened.

As I was enjoying my delicious Vegan Lentil Quinoa Bowl, I felt the bizarre sensation of my lips suddenly swelling, as if there were balloons inflating from within. Initially, I thought that I was having an allergic reaction to my food. But my ears, throat, and skin were fine. The swelling was isolated to my lips.

Darn – Sunburn!

Strangely, every other part of my face and body (that had been exposed to the sun), were fine. Only my lips were badly burned. How did this happen? It made no sense.

I know that I had applied sunscreen, during our entire trip.

Confused, I retrieved the two lip balms that I had used, during our vacation. To my surprise, neither one indicated any SPF rating. A rookie mistake! Okay, no reason to panic — it should be fine. 


This can’t be happening!

Upon awakening the next morning, I found that I was unable to open my mouth. I rushed into the bathroom, and gasped in horror, upon viewing my reflection in the mirror.

What the?

My lips were hideously swollen, with a deep purplish-burgundy color. The pain was searing and intense. I struggled to suppress tears.


What was I going to do? Later – that very night, I had agreed to singing for a live audition, with a jazz quartet, in one of several restaurants on the east end of Long Island that were hosting “Winterfest 2019”. And yet, here I was… looking horrendous, and unable to even move my mouth. 

Should I cancel?

I decided to to defer contacting the quartet leader, until I determined if I could improve my situation, in any way. I took a few Motrin; hydrated like crazy; and liberally applied aloe, Shea butter, coconut oil, and anything else that would help to heal (and ease the pain caused by) my badly damaged lips.

Next, I put myself through the paces of my vocal exercises. Talk about mouth-gymnastics! I couldn’t believe how difficult it was, to articulate words and phrases. After warming up, I worked on rehearsing the two songs that I had agreed to perform.

Finally, I assessed the situation. I may not have looked good. I may not have sounded my best. And indeed, the overall circumstances were less than ideal. On the other hand, I had prepared, for well over a month. I had committed. As a result, I decided to trust my training and my technique, and proceed with the audition.

The little engine that could…

The hour-long drive to the restaurant included more rehearsing. I focused on articulation, as well as the mood (conveyed by the meaning) of each song.

Upon entering the restaurant, the quartet leader greeted us with a warm smile. Then he enthusiastically asked, “Are you ready?” I returned his smile, and mustered every ounce of self confidence…

“Sure – lets do this!”

One small hitch… they hadn’t exactly prepared the two songs that I was supposed to sing. Questions abounded: “In what key, do you sing each song? Which version of each song, do you sing? Okay, so he doesn’t know the male part, so how about I play the sax, instead of him singing those lines, in the duet?” I’ll admit that I was feeling a bit rattled, and quite nervous, at this point in the evening. I composed myself, and calmly (yet assertively) responded (as best as my throbbing lips would allow):

“Um… it’s a duet, and I need to listen for his lines, to lead me into mine. I’m fine in whatever key that works for you all.”

More smiles. More warmth, followed by, “Okay, don’t worry – we’ll figure it all out.”

And so they did. After several moments of conferring with each other; downloading music onto iPads; and selecting the keys for each song; they told me that they would be ready, for my songs. I would open the second set.

The quartet completed an amazing first set, and then had the customary short break. It was time. They introduced me to a packed house, and I was up. Okay – time to ignore the searing pain, and the sensation that I was singing through inflated balloons.

Instead, I focused on connecting with the story told, and the emotional meaning, of each song. I leaned into completely trusting each of these incredibly talented and highly professional musicians. I allowed myself to feel lifted by the pure joy of singing.

And, you know what?

My nerves melted away. It was incredibly smooth and easy. There was a fantastic response from the audience, and many more people approached me with very favorable individual compliments, afterwards.

A dream come true.

Hell’s itch is no joke!

The next two weeks were a different story. Have you ever heard of “hell’s itch?” I had not, prior to this sunburn. Also known as “devil’s itch” or “fire ant itch,” some people describe it as an unrelenting itch that can keep them awake at night and persist for days while the skin heals.

While there is no current definitive etiology, hells itch is believed to result from damage to the nerve endings in the skin.

Medical News Today

I can attest to the hellish aspect, that’s for sure!

Two weeks of headaches; the inability to move my mouth; and feeling completely parched. More than a few sleepless nights. I’ll confess to succumbing to tears of despair during more than a few restless, itchy, pain-filled nights.

Despite feeling so poorly, I didn’t miss any days of work. My colleagues had already covered for me (during a very busy week, with an atypically high number of consult requests), while I was away, on my vacation. I mustered Herculean effort, to tend to my patients, for those two weeks. And, if one more person asked me if I had Botox injections, I felt like I would scream 😱 (if I thought that yelling wouldn’t hurt so darned much). So embarrassing.

  • Click here to check out the excellent skin cancer website for more information about sun protection.

What were the lessons learned?

Three weeks (that seemed impossibly long) have passed. My lips are finally healed. After much contemplation, here are the top 5 lessons that I have learned:

Duh. In fact, several of my friends checked their favorite lip balm, and a surprisingly high number did not contain any sun protection.

When confronted with the decision to cancel my audition, or proceed, I imagined how I would feel, given each choice. Once I made my decision, I committed 100% to the process. No turning back.

Upon stepping up to the microphone, I made the decision to focus on feeling whole and complete. For those moments, there was no sunburn, no pain, no impediments to experiencing the pure joy of singing with those incredibly talented musicians. And so it was.

Embarrassment is self-inflicted and unnecessary. This was a tough one, for me, as someone whom takes deep pride in her professional appearance. Hearing people ask me if I’d had Botox really unnerved me. I had to let go of worrying about how other people may have been evaluating me. I decided to focus my thoughts and efforts on healing, which leads me to…

Pain has the potential to represent a wonderful reminder, to take care of oneself. Yes, had I searched the internet (and spoke with several friends that are health care professionals) for advise, including hydration; antihistamines; cold compresses; and OTC pain medications. However, through most of this experience, I focused on trusting myself, to know what I needed, and to feel better. One of my favorite discoveries? A (vegan) sugar lip scrub, which satisfied the urge to scratch, while exfoliating dead skin that had been painfully constricting my mouth. 

That’s all, for now, dear blog readers. I hope that you enjoyed this post!


Denise Dixon, PhD

Health psychologist

Dr Dixon is a licensed psychologist practicing in New York State. Her contagious enthusiasm for sharing the science of health & behavior has earned her the nickname of “Dr. Smiles.” Dr Dixon also finds joy in motherhood; travel; outdoor sports; singing; piano; and cooking delicious (vegan) meals.

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What did you think about this post? Have you ever suffered from a bad sunburn? How did you cope with it? I’m looking forward to reading and responding to your comments, in the section below. Thank you so much!

Remember – please do not discuss clinical concerns in the comments section, as this blog is for informational purposes only. It does not represent a professional relationship between the reader and the author. If you have any clinical concerns, please schedule an appointment, or see your own health care provider. As always, if you are experiencing an emergency, please call 911 or proceed directly to your closest emergency room.

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