Sunburns and Your Child: The Unseen Health Risks

August 2, 2023

kids sunburn, child receiving sun protection for kids on a sunny day

Sunburns are unpleasant and uncomfortable at any age, but childhood sunburns may be more dangerous. According to Dr. Gregory Walker of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Waco, Texas, “Not only do sunburns leave kids really uncomfortable and unhappy, but sunburns also increase the risk for developing melanoma skin cancers later in life. In fact, the risk more than doubles with even one blistering sunburn in childhood. It’s essential to keep kids safe from the sun’s damaging rays.” In this blog, Dr. Walker talks through the basics of sunburn risks for children, ways of preventing sunburns, and treatment options.

Sunburns & Children: The Unseen Dangers

Anyone can develop a sunburn and other forms of skin damage after too much exposure to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. However, children are at greater risk for sun-related skin damage because they have lower melanin (skin pigment) levels, and their outer layer of skin is thinner compared with adults. This makes them much more susceptible to UV radiation damage. Additionally, the body’s natural defenses against the sun don’t fully develop until later in life, so even a small amount of sun exposure can damage skin, especially for infants and toddlers. That means that even a very limited amount of sun exposure may lead to sunburns in children. The greater the amount of sun exposure, the higher the risk for skin health concerns later in life. Cancer is the most serious long-term effect related to sun damage, but early exposure can also lead to signs of aging like wrinkles, fine lines, and dark spots, developing at younger ages.

The Hidden Health Risk of Sunburns in Children

According to Dr. Walker, “Sunburns aren’t safe at any age, but for kids, sunburns can be especially dangerous. Skin damage is cumulative. That means the more sunburns a child or adolescent has, the greater the risk for serious health concerns later in life. Most notably, every sunburn contributes to an increased skin cancer risk later in life. Research from the Skin Cancer Foundation indicates that five or more blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 increase the risk for melanoma by 80% and nonmelanoma skin cancers by 68%.”

Identifying and Treating Sunburn in Children

Most sunburns are fairly easy to recognize and diagnose. The most obvious warning signs of sunburn include:

  • Skin redness
  • Heat radiating from the skin
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Fever and chills
  • Exhaustion and weakness
  • Itchy, peeling skin

If you notice any of these symptoms after your child is exposed to sunlight, you should take steps immediately to mitigate the effects and alleviate pain and discomfort. Some of the best ways to treat sunburn include:

  • Cool off warm skin by taking a cool shower or bath. You can also apply cold compresses.
  • Rehydrate and soothe skin with moisturizing lotions with aloe or hydrocortisone.
  • Provide over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Follow the dosing recommendations for children and/or consult with your child’s doctor before administering.
  • Take a break from the sun. Letting skin heal and avoiding additional damage is essential.
  • Call a pediatrician or proceed to an emergency room or urgent care if your child has a sunburn that blisters. If you notice signs of infection like fever and chills, get your child immediate medical attention.
  • Be aware of serious health risks like dehydration and heat stroke that can occur due to excessive sun exposure. Know the symptoms and seek treatment right away.

Effective Sun Protection Ensuring Your Child’s Safety in the Sun

When it comes to keeping kids safe from the short and long-term risks associated with sun damage, Dr. Walker says, “Preventing sunburn in children is the best way to keep them safe. Before the damage ever begins, you should keep your child’s skin shielded from the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays. Every child’s skin health needs are different, so you should talk to a dermatologist about the best sunscreen for kids and other solutions to keep your child’s skin healthy now and in the future.”

Below, Dr. Walker outlines their most recommended strategies for sun protection for kids and parents:

  • Apply sunscreen to kids every day if they plan to spend time outdoors, even if they won’t be outside for long. Protect any areas of the skin that will be exposed to sunlight.
  • When out in the sun for an extended time, reapply sunscreen at least every two hours.
  • Choose a sunscreen for kids that is broad-spectrum. That means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • While sun protection factor (SPF) 30 is typically adequate for adults, you may want to consider a higher SPF sunblock for children.
  • Choose physical sunblock instead of chemical sunscreen. While longitudinal studies into the effects of chemical sunscreen use are ongoing, there are indicators that chemical sun protection products may have some negative impacts on overall health. Physical sunblock is considered generally safer.
  • Limit sun exposure between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm when the sun’s UV radiation is at its highest concentration.
  • Protect sensitive areas like the face, scalp, and eyes by having kids wear hats and sunglasses.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing.
  • Take breaks from the sun periodically.

Prioritizing Sun Safety: A Crucial Step for Your Child’s Health

At the end of the day, there’s nothing kids enjoy more than going outside and having fun during the warm, spring and summer months, and good parenting means finding a way for them to enjoy the outdoors safely. That means never skipping the sunscreen, reapplying regularly, and limiting sun exposure during peak hours. If your child burns more easily following sun exposure, you may also want to visit with a dermatologist to ensure you are doing everything you can to keep them safe in the sun. This may be especially important for kids who are taking medicine. Many different prescription and over-the-counter medications can increase the effects of the sun’s UV rays, and a dermatologist can help you understand what to expect and how to keep kids safe.

Partner with a Dermatology Professional

Do you know someone who needs to learn more about sun protection for kids? Don’t forget to pass along this blog. If you’re interested in learning more about skin health and skincare, come back regularly to read the blog and learn more from our skilled dermatologists. Finally, the U.S. Dermatology Partners team would love to schedule a visit with you to discuss sun protection and skincare treatments. To get started, simply fill out our online scheduling request form. When a local dermatology practice receives your request, they’ll be in touch to finalize the details of your visit.

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