Sunburn

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is a visible reaction of the skin's exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, the invisible rays that are part of sunlight. Ultraviolet rays can also cause invisible damage to the skin.

Excessive and/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 US 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, 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 3:00 p.m.).

What are the symptoms of sunburn?

The following are the most common symptoms of sunburn. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling of the skin
  • Pain
  • Blisters
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • Dry, itching, and peeling skin days after the burn

The symptoms of sunburn may resemble other skin conditions. Always consult a physician for the correct diagnosis.

What is the first-aid for sunburn?

  • Have the child take a cool bath or use cool compresses on the sunburned area
  • Give 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. Avoid commercial products that contain Benadryl or benzocaine, because of the possibility of skin irritation or allergy
  • If blisters are present, do not break them open, as infection can occur
  • Keep the child out of the sun until the burn is healed

When should a physician be consulted?

Specific treatment for sunburn will be determined by the physician and may depend on the severity of the sunburn. In general, call a physician if:

  • The sunburn is severe or forms blisters
  • The child has symptoms of heat stress such as fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, or feeling faint

How can sunburn be prevented?

Protection from the sun should start at birth and continue throughout the child's life. It is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of total lifetime sun exposure occurs in the first 18 years of life.

The best way to prevent sunburn in children over 6 months of age is to follow the ABCs recommended by The American Academy of Dermatology:

  • Stay. Stay away from the sun in the middle of the day. This is when the sun's rays are the most damaging.
  • Block. Block the sun's rays using a SPF 15 or higher sunscreen. Apply the lotion 30 minutes before going outside and reapply it often during the day. Sunscreen should not be used on infants under 6 months of age.
  • Cover up. Cover up using protective clothing, such as a long sleeve shirt and a hat with a wide brim 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.

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 100 percent.

The 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.

How are sunscreens used?

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 the child's wrist before using. If the 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 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 the child is playing outdoors in the yard or participating in sports.
  • Use a waterproof or water-resistant sunscreen.
  • Using a sunscreen with SPF of 20 to 30 offers substantial protection from sunburn and prevents tanning. High SPF sunscreens protect from burning for longer periods of time than sunscreens with lower a SPF.
  • Talk with older children or teenagers about using sunscreen and why it's important. Set a good example for them by using sunscreen.
  • Teach teenagers 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.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that sunscreen may be used on infants younger than 6 months old if adequate clothing and shade are not available. Using sunscreen on small areas of skin on an infant is safe, according to the AAP.
  • Avoid sun exposure for infants and dress the infant in lightweight clothing that covers most surface areas of skin. Apply a minimal amount of sunscreen to the infant's face and back of the hands. Consult the infant's physician for more information.
Children's Team

Children's Team

Providers

Departments

Departments

Dermatology

The Division of Dermatology at Children's National Health System continues to expand services as more families seek our expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the skin, hair, and nails.

Invest in future cures for some of life's most devastating diseases

See other ways to give

Run or walk with us on September 13th and help local kids!

Race for Every Child Logo Register now