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If your defenses against the sun fall short and your child suffered a nasty sunburn, there are things you can do afterwards to partially remedy the situation. These tips will help you minimize damage to the skin, as well as help to ease your child’s pain and suffering.

When to seek medical attention for a sunburn

If a blistering burn covers 20% or more of the body (20% would be the equivalent of a child’s whole back, for example) then you should seek medical attention immediately. You should also seek medical help whenever anyone with sunburn is suffering fevers or chills, or if a child under 1-year of age suffers a sunburn.

How to treat bad sunburn

  1. Moisturize the burn area with cream or lotion, preferably one containing vitamin C and vitamin E. This will protect the skin and provide moisture and other nutrients vital for the healing process.
  1. Be sure to keep your child well hydrated. Any type of burn will draw fluid to the skin surface and away from the rest of the body. So have your child drink plenty of extra water, juice and sports drinks for a couple of days afterwards, and watch your child for signs of dehydration (dry mouth, reduced urination, thirst, headaches, dizziness or sleepiness).
  1. Do not scrub, pick or peel the skin, and keep your child from doing the same. Do not try to break blisters from sunburn, either. Do not cover blisters in butter.

Alleviating pain and discomfort from sunburn

  1. Give your child a dose of ibuprofen (Advil) as soon as you start to notice the first signs of sunburn. Continue to administer it as directed for the next 48 hours. Not only will this ease your child’s pain and cut back on redness or swelling, but since ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory, it might also help reduce long-term skin damage. (Tylenol is not an anti-inflammatory.)
  2. It’s OK to use hydrocortisone cream on your child for a day or two to relieve discomfort.
  3. If children are in pain, cooling the skin with moist cloths can provide comfort. However, we would suggest staying away from cooling sprays, which often contain alcohol and can dry the skin out even further.

Q: Will a bad sunburn cause my child to get cancer?

A: As a preschool teacher, it’s common to take field trips with children. Many of those field trips are to outdoor excursions. One of the duties every teacher has on such field trips is to keep the children from morphing into lobsters by the time you get back. It sounds easy in principle, but in practice, the forces of nature are against you.

I remember one particular case where a little girl came back pink, despite having SPF40 applied 3 times during this 4-5 hour excursion.  I was expecting a good ear-chewing. But I didn’t expect her mother to react as though we had just given her child cancer. After all, it was her sunscreen that failed and I know it got applied, because I did so myself. (It’s since been discovered that you can’t actually trust the “waterproof” label, which likely contributed to the problem.)

This story illustrates one of the most common fears that parents are bombarded with: that sunburns, perhaps even a single burn, can give a child cancer. So is this true?

The answer is yes …but only to an extent. Too many bad types of sunburn can increase the risk factor for melanoma. However, the other answer is this: relax. The association is often hyped up throughout the media, though it’s relatively small in real terms, and statistics often give a misleading picture. For example, a story in the media might tout a study that found a “50% increase of melanoma from extra sunburns.” Sounds bad, right? But if you look at the real numbers, this may mean that the risk of melanoma increased from 2 people per 10,000 to 3 per 10,000. It’s a 50% increase, but it’s only 1 in 10,000 overall, or an increase of 0.001 in real risk

More importantly, sun exposure isn’t even the most important risk factor for melanoma, so it’s not as though a few burns will automatically deliver a death sentence. Genetic factors play a much larger role in cancer than does the amount of sunburns a person receives. In fact, some research suggests that those who get the most lifetime sun exposure may be the least likely to die from any melanomas they get.

Obviously, parents and other caretakers need to do all they can to protect children from sunburns. Yet if the forces of nature should sometime conspire against you, too, it’s not as though you need to reserve a spot at the cancer clinic for your child. While sunburns can play a role in increasing a child’s risk, it is but one factor among many that contribute to cancer, and according to scientists, it’s not even the most important one.

Other risk factors:

  • Fair skin and red or blond hair
  • Many moles or atypical moles
  • A family history of melanoma
  • A weakened immune system
  • A previous melanoma

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