Summer Safety: How to Treat Your Child’s Sunburn

Pool time and outdoor play may increase your child’s chance for developing sunburn. Here are some tips from the experts at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital on the best way to treat your child.

What causes sunburn?

Sunburn appears within 6 to 12 hours after the skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. Artificial light sources like sun lamps and tanning beds can also cause sunburns. The skin becomes red and painful, and swelling of the skin, tenderness and blisters can develop. Severe sunburn can also cause nausea, chills and malaise (“feeling sick”). The burned area remains red and painful for a few days. Later, peeling may occur as the skin heals.

What are the risks of sunburn?

Exposure to the sun can harm children even when they don’t get sunburn. Over the years, the effects of sun exposure build up and can lead to wrinkles, freckles, tough skin and even skin cancer later in life. Some medications and medical conditions can also make people more sensitive to sunlight. Since people get most of their sun exposure as children, it’s important to teach children sun safety early on so they can be protected from these problems in the future.

Sunlight contains both UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays cause sunburn. However, UVA rays also cause damage in the long run, including skin cancer. Since tanning beds use UVA light, they aren’t healthy and should be avoided.

How is sunburn treated?

If your child has sunburn, he or she should stay out of the sun until the burn has healed completely. Once it’s healed, be sure your child is wearing sun protection, including sunscreen, before going out in the sun again.

You can control pain from sunburn by applying cool washcloths to the area. Over-the-counter sunburn sprays that contain numbing medications like benzocaine or lidocaine can help, although they may also cause irritation to the skin. You can give anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen by mouth to help with the pain. As the burn heals, apply a moisturizing lotion. Products that contain aloe vera can be helpful in soothing the skin.

How is sunburn prevented?

The sun doesn’t need to be shining brightly to be dangerous. Children can be exposed to UV rays even on foggy or hazy days, and exposure is greater at higher altitudes or when UV rays are reflected off of water, snow, sand, or other surfaces. UV rays are strongest when the sun is the most intense, so try to keep your child out of the sun between 10 am and 4 pm. Infants and young children can quickly develop serious sunburns.

Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Check the label to make sure the sunscreen blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going outside. Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours. Since no sunscreen is waterproof, you may need to reapply sunscreen more frequently if your child is spending lots of time in the water.

Appropriate clothing is also important for sun protection, such as wide-brimmed hats and lightweight cotton clothes with long sleeves and pants.

Keep babies under six months of age out of the sun and in the shade as much as possible. Avoid sunscreen in babies less than six months old.

For more information, visit umm.edu/childrens.

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