Jun 27, 2024, 8:49:14 PM CDT Jul 10, 2024, 2:31:51 PM CDT

How to prevent and treat sunburn in kids

Learn the causes, symptoms and treatments of sunburn and how to protect your child’s skin this summer.

Little girl who is sunburnt at a pool Little girl who is sunburnt at a pool

Sunny days are the perfect time to get the kids outside. However, spending too much time in the sun can make children more likely to get a sunburn. A bad sunburn is not only uncomfortable, but it can increase the risk of health problems later in life.

Nazima Zakhidova, M.D., Pediatrician at Children's Health℠, shares tips to prevent and treat sunburn in kids, as well as when to see a doctor.

What is sunburn?

A sunburn is a skin reaction that happens when a person has too much exposure to the sun.

Symptoms of sunburn usually show up three to five hours after being in the sun and can include:

  • Redness
  • Pain
  • Hot to the touch
  • Itchiness
  • Peeling

The sun emits beams of light called ultraviolet (UV) rays. There are two types of UV rays: UVA and UVB. UVA rays can travel deep into the skin and cause skin damage over time. UVB rays penetrate the outer layers of the skin and cause sunburn.

"A little bit of sun exposure is good for you and helps your body produce Vitamin D which is important for your bones, teeth and immune system," says Dr. Zakhidova. "But too much sun exposure can cause an inflammatory response in the skin, which can increase the risk of premature aging and skin cancer."

Sunburns often happen on bright, sunny days. But they can also happen on cloudy days, especially in places close to the equator where the sun's rays are the strongest.

What makes a person more likely to get sunburned?

Sunburn and sun damage can happen to anyone, but some people may have an increased risk.

You are more likely to get a sunburn if you:

  • Have pale skin and light-colored hair
  • Spend time in the sun without protective clothing or sunscreen
  • Are around snow, water or sand, which can reflect the sun
  • Take certain medicines that make the skin burn more easily

"Darker skin is less likely to burn because the increased melanin protects skin cells from the effects of UV radiation. However, skin damage can still occur resulting in an increased risk of skin cancer," Dr. Zakhidova says.

Did you know? Melanin is a natural substance in the body that makes the color of your hair, skin and eyes.

How to prevent sunburn in kids

The best ways to prevent sunburn is to:

  • Limit your time in the sun during the middle of the day (from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) when the sun's rays are strongest.
  • Find shady spots to play outside, such as under an umbrella, tent or trees.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing, including sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt or long pants.
  • Wear sunscreen on all parts of the body that are not covered by clothes. Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, or every 80 minutes if you are sweating or swimming. It's important to choose a sunscreen that:
    • Has an SPF of 30 or greater: SPF is a number that tells you how well a sunscreen protects the skin from UV rays.
    • Provides broad spectrum coverage: Broad spectrum sunscreen protects against UVA and UVB rays.
  • Wear lip balm that has an SPF of 30 or greater.

Check out more sun safety tips to protect your kids from sun damage.

What to know about baby sunburn

Babies' skin is particularly sensitive, which is why babies can get more severe sunburns. If your baby is less than 1 year old and gets a sunburn, call your pediatrician.

You can help prevent sunburn in babies by keeping them out of direct sunlight and dressing them in a hat and light and loose clothing that covers their skin but won't make them too hot.

"Avoid sunscreen products in infants younger than 6 months," Dr. Zakhidova says. "If you are unable to fully keep your infant out of the sun, it is okay to apply a small amount of 15 SPF to small areas of skin, such as their face and or the back of their hands."

Learn more tips for keeping your baby safe and cool this summer.

How to treat sunburn in kids

Sunburns can typically be treated at home by:

  • Using cool compresses or soaks
  • Taking a cool shower or bath
  • Taking over-the-counter pain medicine like Tylenol or Ibuprofen
  • Using lotions/creams for treating sunburn such as aloe vera
  • Staying out of the sun until redness/pain go away
  • Avoiding picking at the skin
  • Drinking plenty of water

How long does sunburn take to heal?

Sunburn symptoms including pain and redness are usually the worst 12-24 hours after being in the sun, and then start to get better. Sunburn typically fades after about three days.

When to see a doctor for sunburn

Most sunburns get better with home remedies or over-the-counter medication and do not require a trip to the doctor. However, if your child is displaying additional symptoms like confusion, seizure or loss of consciousness, they may be experiencing heat stroke, which is a medical emergency.

It's also important to know the difference between sunburn and sun poisoning, which requires immediate medical attention.

Sun poisoning vs. sunburn

Sun poisoning is a severe, harmful sunburn. It can look similar to sunburn but the skin is often even more red and irritated and lasts longer than a typical sunburn.

Sun poisoning symptoms include:

  • Blisters
  • Hives
  • Itching or pain
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever and chills
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Skin feels hot to the touch
  • Rapid heartbeat

Learn more

Children's Health is by your side keeping your family healthy and safe this summer. See more summer safety tips.

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