Sunburn: Prevention and protection for babies and children
What is it?
Sunburn occurs when the skin is exposed for too long to ultraviolet rays from the sun and, although it is likely to affect fair skinned children more quickly, it can happen to any child, whatever the colour of their skin.
Both UVA and UVB rays are known to be harmful but UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn – they cause damage to the superficial epidermis layers, causing redness and swelling.
If you baby or child has sunburn, it might not be instantly apparent (it could take a few hours for the effects to really show), but the giveaway signs will be a noticeable redness in their skin, which will feel hot to the touch. Sunburn can also cause blistering – if the burn is severe, the blisters will come on more quickly, within 24 hours of exposure.
More serious sunburn is likely to cause a fever and possibly dehydration. It can also lead to heat stroke and vomiting and can be extremely painful.
Some studies have suggested that children who suffer severe sunburn early in life are more at risk of melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) when they are older.
All in all, sunburn really needs to be avoided.
What can I do to prevent sunburn?
Let's start with prevention. These days many parents are aware of the risks posed by too much sun exposure, but following some simple rules will help to ensure your little one doesn't ever have to endure a horrid bout of sunburn.
Firstly, keep babies under six months out of direct sunlight whenever possible. In hot weather, all babies and children should stay out of the sun in the middle of the day (between 11am and 3pm) and should be wearing sunscreen of at least factor 15 (even if you think they will be mostly in the shade).
Look for a sunscreen offering protection from both UVA and UVB (most do these days) and make sure you apply enough; they need a thick layer on every bit of skin that won't be covered by clothing.
Also, remember to reapply frequently (once every couple of hours or so) and bear in mind that sunburn can occur on cloudy days, too – so don't forget to apply a good slather of cream even when it is hazy or overcast.
It's sensible during hot weather for children to wear long-sleeved T-shirts – if you choose loose fitting cotton ones, they won't really be any hotter than if their skin was bare, but the cloth will offer good protection. Hats, too, can prevent burns occurring on the face, ears and neck.
What can I do if my child has sunburn?
If your baby or child does have sunburn, firstly assess how serious you think it is. If the sunburn has caused a fever, if they are being sick or seem to feel very unwell, or if they develop blisters within 24 hours, take them to the doctor who will decide whether they require medical treatment, such as dressings or monitored rehydration.
Sunburn that is less severe can be treated at home. First of all, watch that dehydration because that alone can cause problems – offer lots of drinks (infants can have extra breast or bottle feeds, as well as sips of cool water).
If your child's skin is very hot and uncomfortable, apply a cool (but not icy), water-soaked flannel to the affected areas, or give them a bath in tepid (not hot!) water.
Calamine lotion, or aloe vera gel can be applied to help sooth the skin a little – but don't apply any heavy, greasy moisturisers, which will actually stop the skin from sweating effectively and might make things worse.
If your child's skin blisters and peels within a few days, don't panic too much – it probably means it is on the mend. But you really must not pick at or pull the skin because doing so might cause it to become infected.
Babies over three months old can be given the correct dosage of liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen which will help to relieve any pain.
If you are feeling at all concerned and are not sure whether your child's sunburn is serious, seek medical help. And when it has all calmed down after a few days of strictly remaining in the shade, be sure to stock up on the sunscreen so it doesn't happen again.
Visit Cancer Research UK for some sensible advice on protecting children and teaching them about sun safety.
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