How to Treat Sunburn in Children

First Aid Basics

Mother putting sun cream on daughter's face
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There really aren't any good treatments for a sunburn, so you should try to routinely use sunscreen or sunblock and prevent your kids from getting a sunburn in the first place.

Plus, every sunburn your child gets can put him at increased risk for skin cancer later in life.

Symptoms of a Sunburn

While your child can get a sunburn in as little as 15 to 30 minutes of being in the sun without adequate protection, the symptoms of a sunburn typically don't develop until about 2 to 6 hours later.

Symptoms can include pain, red skin, that may have blisters, and sometimes fever.

After four to seven days, your child's sunburned skin will usually peel.

What is a Sunburn?

A sunburn is basically a burn, but instead of being caused by a curling iron or hot stove, it is caused by too much exposure to the ultraviolet radiation of the sun.

Like other burns, sunburns can cause first degree burns, which are the most common type. With a first degree burn, your child's skin will be red and painful, but there will be no blisters. More severe or deep sunburns can lead to second degree burns, with the formation of blisters on the skin, and more rarely, third degree burns.

Sun Poisoning

Sun poisoning is a non-medical term for severe sunburn.

This type of sunburn may include red, painful skin with swelling and blisters. A child with sun poisoning may also have other symptoms, such as fever, chills, or nausea.

Sun poisoning is also sometimes used to describe the rash that certain people get because they have a sensitivity to the sun. These people, especially young adult women, have polymorphous light eruption.

Treatments for a Sunburn

The goals of most sunburn treatments are to make your child comfortable and ease the pain, especially in the first few days when the sunburn is usually the most painful.

Typical treatments or first aid for sunburns can include:

  • giving your child extra fluids so that he doesn't get dehydrated
  • pain reducers, such as Tylenol or Motrin, or a stronger, prescription strength pain medicine if necessary
  • cool wet compresses and soothing lotions, such as those that contain aloe vera
  • cool baths and showers
  • topical steroids, such as hydrocortisone cream, although some experts don't think that they are helpful
  • a prescription burn cream, like Silvadene (usually not needed though)
  • oral steroids (usually not needed though)
  • an oral antihistamine and topical moisturizers once the sunburned areas begin to peel and become itchy

If blisters are present, don't break them, since that can increase the chance that they will get infected. Once the blisters break on their own over a few days, you can usually apply an antibiotic ointment on them a few times a day and keep them covered with a bandage so that they don't get infected.

Most experts recommend against using over-the-counter sunburn treatments with a topical anesthetic, since they can cause allergic skin rashes.

What You Need To Know About Sunburns

Other things to know about sunburns include that:

  • Most kids recover from their sunburns over two to seven days, depending on how bad it was to begin with, and with the first few days being the worst.
  • Call your doctor if your child has a severe sunburn, with blisters, fever, and/or if the sunburn covers a large area of his body.
  • Certain medications, including most medications that are used to treat acne, can make your child more at risk for severe sunburns.
  • People receive more than 50 percent of their lifetime UV exposure in childhood, so it is important to protect them from the sun and sunburns when they are kids, and hopefully help reduce their later risk of skin cancer.
  • While your child is recovering from a sunburn, avoid things that may aggravate his sunburned skin, such as hot baths or showers and be extra careful to not expose him to the sun. In addition to being painful, the sunburned areas are likely even more susceptible to getting harmed by the sun.
  • See your doctor if your child's sunburn begins to show signs of infection, with increased redness, swelling, pain, or drainage.
     

Sources:

Habif: Clinical Dermatology, 4th ed.

Behrman: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 17th ed.

The epidemiology of sunburn in the US population in 2003. Brown TT - J Am Acad Dermatol - 01-OCT-2006; 55(4): 577-83.

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