Sunburn and Children
What is sunburn?
Sunburn is a visible reaction of the skin's exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation or
UV light sources. Ultraviolet light is absorbed by the skin from sunlight and artificial
sources of light such as that in tanning beds. Ultraviolet rays can also cause invisible
damage to the skin. Excessive or multiple sunburns cause premature aging of the skin
and lead to skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S.
and exposure to the sun is the leading cause of skin cancer.
Children often spend a good part of their day playing outdoors in the sun, especially
during the summer. Children who have fair skin, moles, or freckles, multiple blistering
sunburns, or who have a family history of skin cancer, are more likely to develop
skin cancer in later years.
Exposure to the sun during daily activities and play causes the most sun damage. Overexposure
to sunlight before age 18 is most damaging to the skin.
UV rays are strongest during summer months when the sun is directly overhead (normally
between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.).
What are the symptoms of sunburn?
The following are the most common symptoms of sunburn:
Swelling of the skin
Weakness, confusion, or faintness
Dry, itching, and peeling skin days after the burn
The symptoms of sunburn may look like other skin conditions. Always see your child's doctor
for a diagnosis.
First aid for sunburn
Have your child take a cool bath or use cool compresses on the sunburned area.
Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for discomfort. Be sure to follow the directions
on the container.
Apply a topical moisturizer, aloe gel, hydrocortisone cream, or a topical pain reliever
to sunburned skin.
If blisters are present, do not break them open, as infection can occur.
Keep your child out of the sun until the burn is healed.
Give your child extra fluid for several days to avoid dehydration.
When should I call my child's doctor?
Specific treatment for sunburn will be determined by your child's doctor and may depend
on the severity of the sunburn. In general, call your child's doctor if:
The sunburn is severe or forms blisters
Your child has symptoms of heat stress such as fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, or
Protection from the sun should start at birth and continue throughout your child's
The best way to prevent sunburn in children over 6 months of age is to follow the
A, B, Cs recommended by The American Academy of Dermatology:
Stay away from the sun in the middle of the day. This is when the sun's rays are the
Block the sun's rays using a SPF 30 or higher sunscreen. Apply the lotion 30 minutes
before going outside and reapply it often during the day. Sunscreens should not be
used on infants under 6 months of age. Use broad spectrum sunscreens that block the
greatest amount of UVA and UVB.
Cover up using protective clothing, such as a long sleeve shirt and hat when in the
sun. Use clothing with a tight weave to keep out as much sunlight as possible. Keep
babies less than 6 months old out of direct sunlight at all times. Sunglasses and
hats with brims are important. Clothing rated with UPF (UV protection factor) can
also be worn.
What are sunscreens?
Sunscreens protect the skin against sunburns and play an important role in blocking
the penetration of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. However, no sunscreen blocks UV radiation
Terms used on sunscreen labels can be confusing. The protection provided by a sunscreen
is indicated by the sun protection factor (SPF) listed on the product label. A product
with an SPF higher than 15 is called a sunblock. A product with physical sunblockers
such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are sunblocks whereas products with chemicals
that absorb and filter the sunlight are sunscreens. A product with SPF 15 blocks about
93% of OVB.
How to use sunscreens
A sunscreen protects from sunburn and minimizes suntan by absorbing UV rays. Using
sunscreens correctly is important in protecting the skin. Consider the following recommendations:
Choose a sunscreen for children and test it on your child's wrist before using. If
your child develops skin or eye irritation, choose another brand. Apply the sunscreen
very carefully around the eyes.
Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that filters out both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet
B (UVB) rays.
Apply sunscreens to all exposed areas of skin, including those easily overlooked areas,
such as the rims of the ears, the lips, the back of the neck, and tops of the feet.
Use sunscreens for all children over 6 months of age, regardless of skin or complexion
type, because all skin types need protection from UV rays. Even dark-skinned children
can have painful sunburns.
Apply sunscreens 30 minutes before going out into the sun to give it time to work.
Use it liberally and reapply it every two hours after being in the water or after
exercising or sweating. Sunscreens are not just for the beach. Use them when your
child is playing outdoors in the yard or participating in sports.
Use a waterproof or water-resistant sunscreen.
Use of a sunscreen with SPF of 30 or higher offers substantial protection from sunburn.
High SPF sunscreens protect from burning for longer periods of time than do sunscreens
with lower a SPF. Talk with your older child or teenager about using sunscreen and
why it's important. Set a good example for them by using sunscreen yourself.
Teach your teenager to avoid tanning beds and salons. Most tanning beds and salons
use ultraviolet-A bulbs. Research has shown that UVA rays may contribute to premature
aging of the skin and skin cancer.
For children younger than 6 months, parents should still try to avoid sun exposure
and dress the child in lightweight clothing that covers most surface areas of skin.
Always ask your child's doctor for more information.