Best Ways To Treat Your Child’s Sunburn

Yay, summer’s here! While we at Westchester Health encourage everyone to get outdoors and enjoy the sun, we also want to express some words of caution and share important information about the risk of sunburn, how to prevent it, what to do if your child sustains a burn, and when it might be an emergency.

While people with darker skin coloring tend to be less sensitive to the sun, everyone is at risk for sunburn, says healthychildren.org. Since most sun damage occurs in childhood, children especially need to be protected from the sun’s burning rays. As well as causing the skin to become pink, then red, hot, and painful, sunburn can also cause blistering, fever, chills, headache, and in severe cases, sun stroke.

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

The sun doesn’t have to be out for your child to get burned

Many people incorrectly assume that sunburn can only occur on a hot clear day when the sun is out. In fact, it’s not the visible light rays but rather the invisible ultraviolet rays that are harmful to skin. When it’s overcast, over 70% of the sun’s rays still get through the clouds, so your child can actually be exposed to more ultraviolet rays on foggy or hazy days because he/she might not feel hot and stay outside longer. Also, keep in mind that the sun’s rays are more intense and more harmful at higher altitudes, so take extra care when outdoors in the mountains, for example.

Studies show that the effects of sun exposure build up over time, so that even moderate exposure during childhood can contribute to wrinkling, toughening, freckling and even cancer of the skin in later life, warns healthychildren.org. Also, some medicines can cause your child’s skin to be more sensitive to the sun, so take extra precautions if your child is taking one of them.

And be aware that even a big hat or an umbrella do not give 100% protection because ultraviolet rays reflect off sand, water, snow, sidewalks and many other surfaces. For this and many other reasons, try to keep your child out of the sun when the peak ultraviolet rays occur (between 10am and 4pm).

Degrees of severity of sunburn

  • Most sunburn is a first-degree burn that turns the skin pink or red
  • Prolonged sun exposure can cause blistering and a second-degree burn
  • Sunburn never causes a third-degree burn or scarring

What to do if your child gets sunburned

Here are 7 important things to do if your child gets sunburned, as advised by Harvard Medical School.

  1. Get him/her out of the sun

If your child’s skin is getting sunburned, either find or make some shade, or go indoors. Staying out in the sun longer will only make the burn worse, perhaps cause blistering, and possibly put your child at risk of heat exhaustion or even heat stroke.

  1. Use cool water

A cool bath or shower can soothe sunburn. Also, a cool, damp towel or cloth applied over the burnt area will not only make the burn feel better but can bring down the temperature of the skin and underlying tissue.

  1. Use after-sun skin products that contain aloe vera

Widely available in lotions and gels, aloe is very soothing to sunburned skin. Do not use products that contain petroleum, such as Vaseline, as this can trap heat inside the skin. Also, do not use products that contain benzocaine or lidocaine (pain reducers), as they can irritate sunburns.

  1. Make sure your child stays hydrated

Burned skin does not keep needed fluids inside the body as well as normal skin, so a sunburned child needs to drink more liquids than usual. Water is best, and your child needs to drink frequently, several times an hour.

  1. You could give your child ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)

This can help with pain and swelling. If you’re not sure of your child’s dosage, call your doctor.

  1. Leave blisters alone, do not break them

If your child’s skin has developed blisters, that means the burn is a second-degree burn, which is more serious. Do not break or pop them; just leave them alone and consult your doctor about next steps.

  1. Protect your child’s sunburned skin from further damage

Until your child’s sunburned has faded and healed (which may take several days to a week or more, depending on the severity of the burn), keep your child out of the sun. If your child must go out, dress him/her in lightweight, tightly woven clothing that blocks the sun’s burning rays. One idea is to explore fun indoor activities to do instead of going back out in the sun, if possible.

Call your pediatrician or 911 right away if your child:

  • Has a fever over 104° F (40° C)
  • Has fainted
  • Is in severe pain
  • Can’t look at lights because of eye pain
  • Has cramping, nausea, vomiting, dizziness or sleepiness that doesn’t improve once inside and cooled off
  • Has many blisters, especially on the face
  • Has swollen feet making it hard to walk
  • Looks or acts very sick

Sunscreen: the best prevention

Without a doubt, the best way to prevent sunburn is to choose an adequate sunscreen and apply it to your child’s skin frequently the entire time he/she is in the sun anywhere, not just while at the beach or pool.

Sunscreen should become a habit anytime he/she is outdoors when the sun is out, including sports practice, bike riding, hiking or just playing in the yard. Starting at a young age, it’s a good idea to teach your child the importance of putting on sunscreen, not only to prevent sunburn but also to lower the risk of skin damage and skin cancer later in life.

Choose a sunscreen made for children with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Apply 15-20 minutes before going out to give the sunscreen time to be fully absorbed. Keep in mind that no sunscreen is truly waterproof, and thus needs to be reapplied every 1-2 hours, particularly if your child is in and out of the water, healthychildren.org advises.

High-risk children and babies

Some children are at higher risk for sunburn, especially those who:

  • Have red or blond hair
  • Are fair-skinned
  • Never tan, always burn

These children need to use sunscreen anytime they are outdoors during the day, even for brief exposures, and should avoid the hours of peak ultraviolet rays (between 10am and 4pm).

Another important thing to remember is that babies’ skin is thinner than that of older children, is more sensitive to the sun, and burns more quickly. At Westchester Health, we recommend keeping infants under 6 months of age out of the sun. Between 6 months and 3 years of age, dress your child in clothes that fully cover the arms and legs and a hat with a brim. Apply sunscreen to exposed skin (you can use the same as for adults) and use a stroller with a canopy.

Read our pediatric blogs

We’ve written several informative blogs about children’s illnesses and conditions as well as preventative care, which you can read here.

Helpful websites

Concerned about your child getting sunburned? Please come see us.

If your child spends a lot of time in the sun and you’re worried about sunburn, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment to see one of our Westchester Health pediatricians. We’ll sit down with you, and also your child if you’d like, and talk about the various safety precautions you can take to protect your child’s skin, now and as he/she gets older. We’ll also take all the time you need to answer any questions you may have. Our #1 goal is to help you and your family be healthy and happy. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, Lead Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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