Treating Kids’ Sunburns

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“Mommy, my skin hurts,” says the six year old boy. His mother looks at her son and realizes that she forgot to have him put on sunscreen before he came outside. Now he has been out in the sun for the past three hours and looks as red as a lobster!

While parents do their best to make sure their children do not get too much sun, mistakes happen. This leaves parents in the situation of needing to treat their child’s sunburn.

A sunburn is damage to a child’s skin. Most sunburns are first degree burns where the first layer of skin is damaged and it turns pink or red. Pain and swelling from sunburn starts around four hours after the sun overexposure and peaks about 24 hours afterward. The sunburn starts to improve after 48 hours. First degree burns can typically be treated at home and heal on their own.

Parents who have a child with first degree sunburn have several home treatment options. The first is to give a child over six months of age an ibuprofen. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory and can reduce swelling and discomfort if given within six hours of the overexposure and continued for a couple of days. Applying aloe vera on mild burns can also be soothing.

Another treatment to use as soon as possible is to apply 1% hydrocortisone cream. The cream should be used three times per day. It can also reduce the swelling and pain of the sunburn. If there isn’t any hydrocortisone cream in the house, then moisturizing cream can serve as a short-term substitute.

Temporary relief can be provided by applying cold compresses or taking cool baths. The compresses can be applied several times a day and help with reducing the swelling and pain of the burn. The cool bath is particularly effective with larger sunburns. Parents should add two ounces of baking soda to the bath and have their child in the bath for about 10 minutes. Soap should not be used, particularly on the sunburn.

There are more severe sunburns that occur that are often accompanied with blisters. The more severe sunburns are considered second degree burns.  These types of sunburns can also cause fever, chills, headaches, or general feelings of illness. Parents should contact their pediatrician if this is the case.

The blisters from second degree sunburns should be left alone. Popping blisters increases the chances of the wound becoming infected. If the blisters burst, the dead skin around the wound should be trimmed and the wound should be cleaned with mild soap and water. The wound should then have an antibiotic ointment applied and covered with a loose bandage.

The pain from sunburn usually stops after two or three days. The damaged skin will start to peel after five to seven days. While children’s skin tends to be more resilient than adults, it is important to minimize any sunburns.

The effects of sun overexposure and burns accumulate over time. Even moderate sun exposure in childhood can contribute to wrinkling, toughening, freckling, and even cancer of the skin later in life.

Parents should take the appropriate steps to ensure children don’t get sunburn. They can do this by making sure children use a SPF 30 or above sunscreen before going outside. They should also try to keep children out of the sun between 10am and 4pm as this is when the ultraviolet rays are at their peak. Using these guidelines can help children keep their skin in good shape and avoid those sunburns.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on July 13, 2014.

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