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Sunburn and Children

What is sunburn? 

Sunburn is a visible reaction of the skin's exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation or UV light sources. UV light is absorbed by the skin from sunlight and artificial sources of light such as that in tanning beds. UV rays can also cause invisible damage to the skin. Excessive or multiple sunburns cause wrinkling and premature aging of the skin and may lead to skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S. Sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer. 

Children often spend a good part of their day playing outdoors in the sun, especially during the summer. Children are more likely to develop skin cancer in later years if they have:

  • Fair skin, moles, or freckles

  • Multiple blistering sunburns

  • A family history of skin cancer

Child on the beach

Exposure to the sun during daily activities and play causes the most sun damage. Overexposure to sunlight before age 18 is most damaging to the skin.

UV rays are strongest during summer months when the sun is directly overhead (normally between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.).

What are the symptoms of sunburn?

The following are the most common symptoms of sunburn:

  • Redness

  • Swelling of the skin

  • Pain

  • Blisters

  • Fever

  • Nausea

  • Chills

  • Weakness, confusion, or faintness

  • Dry, itching, and peeling skin 3 to 8 days after the burn

The symptoms of sunburn may look like other skin conditions. Always see your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

First aid for sunburn

  • Have your child take a cool bath or use cool compresses on the sunburned area.

  • Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for discomfort and fever. Be sure to follow the directions on the container.

  • Apply a topical moisturizer, aloe gel, hydrocortisone cream, or a topical pain reliever to sunburned skin.

  • If blisters are present, do not break them open, as infection can occur.

  • Keep your child out of the sun until the burn is healed.

  • Give your child extra fluid for several days to avoid dehydration. 

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Specific treatment for sunburn will be determined by your child's healthcare provider and may depend on the severity of the sunburn. In general, call your child's healthcare provider if:

  • The sunburn is severe or forms blisters

  • Your child has symptoms of heat stress such as fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, or feeling faint

Preventing sunburn

Protection from the sun should start at birth and continue throughout your child's life.

The best way to prevent sunburn in children older than 6 months is to follow the A, B, Cs recommended by The American Academy of Dermatology:


Stay away from the sun in the middle of the day. This is when the sun's rays are the most damaging.


Block the sun's rays using a SPF 30 or higher sunscreen. Apply the lotion 30 minutes before going outside and reapply it often during the day. Sunscreens should not be used on infants younger than 6 months old. Use broad spectrum sunscreens that block the greatest amount of UVA and UVB rays.


Cover up using protective clothing, such as a long sleeve shirt and hat when in the sun. Use clothing with a tight weave to keep out as much sunlight as possible. Keep babies younger than 6 months old out of direct sunlight at all times. Sunglasses and hats with brims are important. Clothing rated with UPF (UV protection factor) can also be worn.

What are sunscreens?

Sunscreens protect the skin against sunburns and play an important role in blocking the penetration of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. No sunscreen blocks UV radiation 100%.

Terms used on sunscreen labels can be confusing. The protection provided by a sunscreen is indicated by the sun protection factor (SPF) listed on the product label. Products with chemicals that absorb and filter the sunlight are sunscreens. Products with physical sunblockers (such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) are sunblocks. A product with SPF 15 blocks about 93% of UVB radiation.

How to use sunscreens

A sunscreen protects from sunburn and minimizes suntan by absorbing UV rays. Using sunscreens correctly is important in protecting the skin. Consider the following recommendations:

  • Choose a sunscreen for children and test it on your child's wrist before using. If your child develops skin or eye irritation, choose another brand. Apply the sunscreen very carefully around the eyes.

  • Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that filters out both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. More expensive does not always mean it is better.

  • Apply sunscreens to all exposed areas of skin, including easily overlooked areas. These include the rims of the ears, the lips, the back of the neck, and tops of the feet.  

  • Use sunscreens for all children older than 6 months. It doesn’t matter what type of skin or complexion your child has. All skin types need protection from UV rays. Even dark-skinned children can have painful sunburns.  

  • Watch for ingredients that may irritate your skin or give you an allergic reaction. 

  • Apply sunscreens 30 minutes before going out into the sun to give it time to work. Put on a thick layer and reapply it every 2 hours after being in the water or after exercising or sweating. Sunscreens are not just for the beach. Use them when your child is playing outdoors in the yard or playing sports.

  • Use a waterproof or water-resistant sunscreen.

  • Using sunscreen with SPF of 30 or higher offers substantial protection from sunburn. High SPF sunscreens protect from burning for longer periods of time than do sunscreens with lower a SPF. Talk with your older child or teen about why using sunscreen is important. Set a good example by using sunscreen yourself.

  • Teach your teen to avoid tanning beds and salons. Most tanning beds and salons use UVA bulbs. Research has shown that UVA rays may contribute to premature aging of the skin and skin cancer.

  • Try to avoid sun exposure in children younger than 6 months. Dress your child in lightweight clothing that covers most surface areas of skin. 

Always ask your child's healthcare provider for more information.

Online Medical Reviewer: Berman, Kevin, MD, PhD
Online Medical Reviewer: Kolbus, Karin, RNH, DNP, COHN-S
Date Last Reviewed: 4/29/2015
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