Sunburn and Children
What is sunburn?
Sunburn is a red, painful skin reaction after exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light.
The skin absorbs UV light from sunlight as well as artificial sources of light such
as tanning beds. UV rays can also cause invisible damage to the skin. Excessive or
multiple sunburns cause wrinkling and premature aging of the skin. Sun exposure is
also 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 are more likely to develop skin cancer in later years
if they have:
Fair skin, moles, or freckles
Multiple blistering sunburns
A family history of skin cancer
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?
These are the most common symptoms of sunburn:
Swelling of the skin
Weakness, confusion, or faintness
Dry, itching, and peeling skin 3 to 8 days after the burn
The symptoms of sunburn may look like other skin conditions. Always see your child's
healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
First aid for sunburn
If your child gets a sunburn, these tips can help make your child more comfortable:
Have your child take a cool bath or use cool compresses on the sunburned area.
Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for discomfort and fever. 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 healthcare provider?
Specific treatment for sunburn will be determined by your child's healthcare provider
and may depend on the severity of the sunburn. In general, call your child's healthcare
The sunburn is severe or forms blisters
Your child has symptoms of heat stress such as fever (see Fever and children, below),
chills, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, or feeling faint
Fever and children
Always use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Never use a mercury
For infants and toddlers, be sure to use a rectal thermometer correctly. A rectal
thermometer may accidentally poke a hole in (perforate) the rectum. It may also pass
on germs from the stool. Always follow the product maker’s directions for proper use.
If you don’t feel comfortable taking a rectal temperature, use another method. When
you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which method you used
to take your child’s temperature.
Here are guidelines for fever temperature. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before
6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years
Infant under 3 months old:
Ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.
Rectal or forehead (temporal artery) temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as
directed by the provider
Armpit temperature of 99°F (37.2°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider
Child age 3 to 36 months:
Rectal, forehead (temporal artery), or ear temperature of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher,
or as directed by the provider
Armpit temperature of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider
Child of any age:
Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider
Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under 2 years old. Or a fever that
lasts for 3 days in a child 2 years or older.
Protect your child from the sun starting at birth and continuing throughout your child's
The best way to prevent sunburn in children older than 6 months 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. Use broad spectrum sunscreens
that block the greatest amount of UVA and UVB rays.
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. Sunglasses
and hats with brims are important. Clothing rated with UPF (UV protection factor)
can also be worn.
Note: Keep babies younger than 6 months old out of direct sunlight at all times. The
American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using sunscreen on small areas of the infant's
body only, such as the face, if protective clothing and shade are not available.
What are sunscreens?
Sunscreens protect the skin against sunburns and play an important role in blocking
the penetration of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. No sunscreen blocks UV radiation 100%.
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. Products
with chemicals that absorb and filter the sunlight are sunscreens. A product that
physically blocks the sun (such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) is called a sunblock.
A product with SPF 15 blocks about 93% of UVB radiation.
How to use sunscreens
A sunscreen protects the skin from sunburn and minimizes suntan by absorbing UV rays.
Using sunscreens correctly is important in protecting the skin. Consider the following
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 on the face to avoid the area around the eyes.
Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that filters out both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet
B (UVB) rays. More expensive sunscreen does not always mean it is better.
Apply sunscreens to all exposed areas of skin, including easily overlooked areas.
These include the rims of the ears, the lips, the back of the neck, and tops of the
Use sunscreens for all children older than 6 months. It doesn’t matter what type of
skin or complexion your child has. All skin types need protection from UV rays. Even
dark-skinned children can have painful sunburns.
Watch for ingredients that may irritate your child's skin or give him or her an allergic
Apply sunscreens 30 minutes before going out into the sun to give it time to work.
Put on a thick layer and reapply it every 2 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 playing sports.
Use a waterproof or water-resistant sunscreen.
Using sunscreen with SPF of 30 or higher offers strong 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 teen about why using sunscreen is
important. Set a good example by using sunscreen yourself.
Teach your teen to avoid tanning beds and salons. Most tanning beds and salons use
UVA bulbs. Research has shown that UVA rays may contribute to premature aging of the
skin and skin cancer.
Keep children younger than 6 months out of the sun if possible. Dress your child in
lightweight clothing that covers most surface areas of skin.
Always ask your child's healthcare provider for more information.