What is sunburn?

Sunburn is superficial skin damage that occurs when your child’s unprotected skin is exposed to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Two types of UV waves, called UVA and UVB, are responsible for most of the damage to the skin. If your baby or young child is sunburned, the sunburn can damage the DNA of skin cells. Damaged skin cells can lead to moles or even skin cancer.

Any part of the body can burn – from the scalp, to ear tips, to arms, chest, and face. Only minutes of intense sun exposure can cause sunburn. Sunburns usually appear a few hours after your child has been exposed to the sun.

After a few days, the skin tries to repair itself by peeling away the top layer of damaged skin.

Most sunburns occur during daily playtime and not necessarily special trips to the beach.

Signs and symptoms of sunburn

The signs and symptoms of sunburn may include:

  • painful skin that is hot to the touch
  • redness or pinkness
  • swelling skin
  • small blisters that may break and leak fluid
  • headache, fever, or fatigue if the burn covers a large area

Risk factors

Babies and younger children can get sunburned in 20 minutes (or less in high UV settings). Light-skinned or red-headed children are more at risk to sun damage.

How you can help your child with sunburn

If your child suffers a sunburn, there are simple steps to help your child’s skin recovery.

Follow these steps:

  • Have your child stay in the shade until the sunburn is healed.
  • If the sunburn is painful, gently apply a cold compress to the skin or have your child take a cool (not very cold) bath.
  • Gently apply aloe vera gel to the skin. Hydrocortisone cream (1%) can also help reduce swelling.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your child’s doctor if blisters develop on the skin.

Prevention of sunburn

It is very easy to prevent sunburn in children.

Cover up

Have your child wear sun-protective gear and clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat or light clothing with long sleeves.

Avoid the sun during peak hours

In the northern hemisphere, the sun is most strong from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Encourage your child to play in the shade or indoors during those hours.

Apply sunblock regularly

Gently rub in sunblock about 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply after a few hours or after your child has perspired or become wet.

Check medicines

Some medicines cause the skin to become more sensitive to the sun. Speak to your child’s doctor, health care provider or pharmacist to find out if your child’s medicines have adverse effects when your child is exposed to the sun.

Eye protection

The sun can damage your child’s eyes too. Sunglasses with ultraviolet protection can prevent this damage. If you wear your sunglasses, your child may be more inclined to wear them as well. It may also be fun if your child can choose a sunglass style of their choice.

Key points

  • Sunburns increase the risk of skin cancer.
  • In high UV settings, only minutes of direct sun exposure can cause a sunburn.
  • Peak risk hours are from 11 a.m to 3 p.m.
  • To prevent sunburn, cover up exposed skin or reapply sun block frequently and after swimming.

Mark Feldman, MD
Charis Kelly, RN(EC), MN