As soon as New England’s long, frigid winters begin to wane, many families will spring into action hoping to enjoy every possible moment of summer’s fleeting sunshine. Trips to the beach and dips in the pool can quickly become a bust, though, because of sun and heat overexposure. Ari Cohen, MD, chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, explains how parents can be prepared with a few simple steps.
Ari Cohen, MD
How can I prevent a sun burn?
Depending on skin type, a child’s skin can burn in a just a few minutes. Parents should apply kid-friendly sunscreen, labeled as SPF 30 or higher, that provides broad spectrum UVA, UVB protection and blocks ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB), before getting to the beach or pool when exposure is already underway. Sunscreens made for children are less likely to cause skin irritation and should have adequate SPF protection if used correctly. Re-apply sunscreen every 2 -3 hours and after your child has been swimming for extended periods. Do not be fooled by cloudy days as UV rays can still cause burns!
I encourage parents to outfit their children in hats which shade the face, head and neck. But be careful! If you opt for a baseball hat, your child’s ears and neck are completely exposed and will need ample sunscreen. ‘Swim shirts,’ tight-fitted apparel that help block UV rays, are also popular with parents and provide additional protection.
What type of sunscreen should I use?
There are many types of sunscreen marketed to parents, but the key is how the block is applied. Sprays allow for quick application, but it may be hard to determine how much is getting on your child’s skin, particularly on windy beaches. Plus, aerosol sprays can cause eye irritation and shouldn’t be directly applied to a child’s face.
Babies younger than 6 months old should avoid direct sunlight. Protective clothing is key because sunscreen can’t yet be applied to their fragile skin. Many parents use beach tents as an extra safeguard. After 6 months, parents should liberally apply kid-friendly sunscreen – products where common skin irritants have been removed - in combination with ‘swim shirts’ and hats.
Oops! My child got sunburnt. How can I treat it?
Any sign of redness or peeling is a sign of potential skin damage. Current estimates are that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. If a child begins accumulating dangerous burns at a young age, the odds of being diagnosed with melanoma only increases. Prevention is paramount.
If your child does get burned, treat any pain with an over-the-counter pain reliever per the bottles instructions. Aloe and after burn lotions can also help with discomfort. Blisters, although uncommon, can appear. They should be left alone until they pop on their own and then treated with bacitracin or an over-the-counter antibiotic to keep the wound moisturized and allow quicker healing. Large blistered burns should be evaluated by medical professionals.
After a day in the sun, my child feels sick. What should I do?
Too much exposure to the sun and heat can cause ‘sun stroke,’ or heat exhaustion, when a person’s body is overwhelmed and internal temperature has been raised too high. Feeling tired and light-headed; heavy sweating; cold, clammy skin; a fast, weak pulse; nausea and vomiting are all common symptoms.
Immediately move your child to a cool, shaded environment and apply a damp cloth to his or her skin. This will help quickly lower the child’s internal temperature. Offer water or sports drinks ensure adequate hydration. If the child is lethargic or irritable after being removed from the hot environment and receiving fluids, call your doctor for further advice.