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Sunburn: Treatment & Prevention

No matter our age or skin tone, we all need to take steps to prevent sunburn when we're enjoying the outdoors. Children especially need to be protected from the sun's burning rays, since most sun damage occurs in childhood. Like other burns, sunburn will leave the skin red, warm, and painful. In severe cases it may cause blistering, fever, chills, headache, and a general feeling of illness.

Your child doesn't actually have to be burned, however, in order to be harmed by the sun. The effects of exposure build over the years, so that even moderate exposure during childhood can contribute to wrinkling, toughening, freckling and even skin cancer later life. Also, some medications can cause a skin reaction to sunlight, and some medical conditions may make people more sensitive to the sun.

How to treat a sunburn

The signs of sunburn usually appear 6 to 12 hours after exposure, with the greatest discomfort during the first 24 hours. If your child's burn is just red, warm, and painful, you can treat it yourself. Apply cool compresses to the burned areas or bathe the child in cool water. You also can give acetaminophen to help relieve the pain. (Check the package for appropriate dosage for her age and weight.)

If the sunburn causes blisters, fever, chills, headache or a general feeling of illness, call your pediatrician. Severe sunburn must be treated like any other serious burn; if it's very extensive, hospitalization sometimes is required. In addition, the blisters can become infected, requiring treatment with antibiotics. Sometimes extensive or severe sunburn also can lead to dehydration and, in some cases, fainting (heatstroke). If your child has these symptoms, contact your pediatrician right away or take them to the nearest emergency facility.

Sunburn prevention

Many parents incorrectly assume that the sun is dangerous only when it's shining brightly. In fact, it's not the visible light rays but rather the invisible ultraviolet rays that are harmful. Your child actually may be exposed to more ultraviolet rays on foggy or hazy days because they'll feel cooler and therefore stay outside for a longer time. Exposure is also greater at higher altitudes. Even a big hat or an umbrella is not absolute protection because ultraviolet rays reflect off sand, water, snow and many other surfaces.

Try to keep your child out of the sun when the peak ultraviolet rays occur (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.).

In addition, follow these guidelines to protect your child's skin in the sun:

  • Always use a sunscreen to block the damaging ultraviolet rays. Choose a sunscreen made for children with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 or higher. (Check the label.) Apply the protection half an hour before going out. Keep in mind that no sunscreens are truly waterproof; thus they need to be reapplied every 1 -and-a-half to 2 hours, particularly if your child spends a lot of time in the water. Choose a product that is labeled "water resistant," and check the instructions on the bottle.

  • Dress your child in lightweight cotton clothing with long sleeves and long pants. SPF-rated clothing and hats are also a good idea to protect your child's skin when they're outdoors.

  • Use a beach umbrella or similar object to keep your child in the shade as much as possible.

  • Have them wear a hat with a wide brim.

  • Babies under 6 months of age should be kept out of direct sunlight. If adequate clothing and shade are not available, sunscreen may be used on small areas of the body, such as the face and the backs of the hands.

More information

Last Updated
Adapted from Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five 7th edition (Copyright © 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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