Kids love to play in the sun — but unprotected hours in sunshine can cause serious, painful sunburns.

Symptoms of sunburn are easy to spot: redness, extreme tenderness, pain and swelling. More serious sunburns may cause blistering, headache, nausea and chills.

But a sunburn can cause other problems beyond pain. The damage the skin endures from sunlight causes premature aging. More than 30 percent of adults and 70 percent of children and teens report at least one sunburn during the course of a year. Even worse: prolonged, repeated exposure to the sun is the leading cause of skin cancer. It’s a cumulative, irreversible process that begins in early childhood. Eventually, the skin’s ability to repair itself breaks down. When abnormal cells accumulate too fast, skin cancer results.

Preventing sun damage is one of the smartest, most loving things a parent can do. You’ll be saving your child’s skin — and possibly, his life.

The skin of a baby or young child is extra thin. The younger the child, the higher the risk of damage and pain from sunburn. Individuals with light or red hair and others with fair skin are more susceptible to sunburn because their skin has less melanin pigment. That means the skin cannot tolerate as much of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Children with darker complexions have more natural protection, but are still at risk. Even those individuals with recent sun exposure or prior skin injury are at a greater risk for sunburn.

Medically, sunburn is a classification of a burn injury. Redness usually develops three to five hours after exposure, peaking within 12 to 24 hours and can last for up to seven days. Pain may be intense for up to four days. Skin peeling occurs three to eight days following extensive sun exposure.

Any sunburn may be accompanied by pain, nausea, vomiting, chills, fever and delirium. These symptoms may persist for 24 to 72 hours.

The obvious solution is to avoid overexposure to the sun. For some kids, that may be just 10 minutes on a sizzling day. But kids don’t have to stay inside all summer to be safe.

When warm weather sets in, start kids with a few minutes in the sun per day and work up to longer exposures. Keep kids out of the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest and skin damage from sun exposure is most likely to occur and plan outdoor activities earlier or later in the day. Don’t be lulled into thinking a cloudy day is safe: it isn’t. At times, more than 80 percent of the sun’s radiation can pass through the clouds and cause sunburn.

If you head for the beach or pool, take advantage of poolside awnings or beach umbrellas and be aware of reflected sunlight. Water and sand can bounce sunlight onto a child almost as intensely as the sun. Take extra care on vacations to warmer climates and high-altitude areas, where the sun’s radiation is stronger.

Sunburn can occur in wintertime, too, as sunlight bounces off snow and ice onto unprotected skin. If your kids play in the snow on a sunny day, or if you go skiing, use sunscreen. Antibiotics, seizure medications and acne preparations may make skin more likely to burn. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the effect of sun exposure with any medication your child is taking.

A child who becomes overheated may develop a rash called prickly heat. It isn’t dangerous, but it is uncomfortable. Keep the child out of the sun until the rash goes away.

Set a good example. Don’t use artificial tanning devices. Use a sunscreen and sit in the shade.

Sunscreens are the most important weapon against sunburn because they filter out the damaging rays from sunlight. Choose a milky lotion or cream, which is more soothing than a clear, alcohol-based lotion. Apply sunscreen liberally to dry skin at least 20 to 30 minutes before sun exposure so the active ingredients can be absorbed into the skin. If the child is swimming or involved in activities that cause heavy sweating, reapply sunscreen liberally every hour. Even products advertised as water-resistant or waterproof need to be applied every two hours or after coming out of the water.

Look for a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, and that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Sensitive individuals, like those with fair skin, redheads, and blonds, should use a sunscreen with a higher SPF, such as 30. Apply carefully around the eyes, as kids tend to rub their eyes and the lotion could irritate them. Use a sunscreen stick for extra protection on vulnerable areas such as lips, scalp, ears and nose. Children who burn easily should have a layer of zinc oxide on these sensitive places.

When looking at different sunscreens for children under age 1, stay away from products with PABA. PABA is an added ingredient in some sunscreens that can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions in this age group.

Test products first on a small patch of skin on your child’s inner forearm. If any irritation develops, check with your child’s doctor and try another brand. If the sunscreen is past its expiration date, or older than three years, throw it away. Expired sunscreen may be less effective and may increase the risk of sunburn.

Very young children have especially sensitive skin on their scalps, cheeks, foreheads and noses. Always put a hat on any baby or toddler who will be in direct sunlight for any length of time. Choose a carriage or stroller with a hood or canopy. Dress children in clothes with long sleeves and long pants, if possible. Keep baby in the shade and out of direct sunlight at all times. Shade can decrease your chance of sunburn because the UV radiation from the sun is less; however, sunscreen is still recommended when sitting in the shade.

Despite your best efforts, your child still may get sunburned. Here’s what to do:

Usually, a parent will notice a developing sunburn before it becomes too severe and bring the child out of the sun. Mild sunburns can be treated at home as outlined above. But if your child’s sunburn is extensive, has severe blistering, and the child is nauseated, you should call the doctor.

Always call your child’s physician if any of these symptoms develop after a sunburn:

The Regional Burn Center at Akron Children’s Hospital is open 24 hours a day for treatment of mild and severe burns. 

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