Treating Sunburns in Children

Boy with Sunburned Face

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There really aren't any good treatments for sunburn, so try to routinely use sunscreen or sunblock and prevent your kids from getting a sunburn in the first place. Every sunburn your child gets can put him at increased risk for skin cancer later in life.

That said, many children still end up with sunburns. What exactly is a sunburn and what treatments work best? What else do you need to know about sunburns in kids?

What Is a Sunburn?

A sunburn is basically a burn, but instead of being caused by curling iron or a hot stove, it is caused by too much exposure to the ultraviolet radiation of the sun.

Like other burns, sunburns can cause first degree burns, which are the most common type. With a first degree burn, your child's skin will be red and painful, but there will be no blisters. More severe or deep sunburns can lead to second-degree burns with the formation of blisters on the skin, and more rarely, third-degree burns.

Parents should be aware that both UVB and UVA rays can damage the skin. While UVB rays typically burn the skin, UVA rays may be more important in aging the skin. The radiation from UVA rays is more constant and penetrates deeper into the skin (the dermis). Both UVA and UVB cause DNA damage in the skin; the damage which can lead to skin cancer.

Even if your child has only a mild burn or has no visible burn at all, skin damage may still occur.

Symptoms of a Sunburn

While your child can get a sunburn in as little as 15 to 30 minutes of being in the sun without adequate protection, the symptoms of a sunburn typically don't develop until 1 to 24 hours later. Symptoms can include pain, red skin that may have blisters, and sometimes fever.

After four to seven days, your child's sunburned skin will usually peel.


The goals of most sunburn treatments are to make your child comfortable and ease the pain, especially in the first few days when the sunburn is usually the most painful.

Treatments for sunburn do not heal the burn. There are no treatments which address the damage that has been done. The goal of "treatment" is to ease discomfort while the body repairs itself.

Typical treatments or first aid for sunburns can include:

  • Giving your child extra fluids so that he doesn't get dehydrated
  • Pain reducers, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), or a stronger, prescription-strength pain medicine if necessary with severe burns
  • Cool, wet compresses
  • Soothing lotions that contain aloe vera: Avoid lotions, however, which are advertised to treat sunburn and contain medication designed to "numb" the sunburn (ingredients such as benzocaine), as many of these can cause allergic reactions.
  • Cool baths and showers
  • Topical steroids, such as hydrocortisone cream (although some experts don't think that they are helpful)
  • A prescription burn cream, like Silvadene: Prescription creams are usually not needed but can reduce pain significantly with severe burns.
  • Oral steroids: Corticosteroids are used rarely and only with severe sunburns.
  • An oral antihistamine and topical moisturizers once the sunburned areas begin to peel and become itchy.

When Blisters Are Present

Don't break blisters, since this can increase the chance that they will get infected. Once they break on their own, apply an antibiotic ointment (such as Bacitracin or Neosporin) a few times a day and keep them covered with a bandage so that they don't get infected. Call your pediatrician if you notice any signs of infection such as increased redness, yellow discharge, swelling, or a fever.

Sun Poisoning

Sun poisoning is a non-medical term for severe sunburn.

This type of sunburn may include red, painful skin with swelling and blisters. A child with sun poisoning may also have other symptoms, such as fever, chills, or nausea.

Sun poisoning is also sometimes used to describe the rash that certain people get because they have a sensitivity to the sun. These people, especially young adult women, have a polymorphous light eruption.

Less commonly, a condition known as solar urticaria may occur in which both redness and hives are present.

Sunburn Details

Other things to know about sunburns include:

  • Most kids recover from their sunburns over two to seven days, depending on how bad it was, to begin with, and with the first few days being the worst.
  • Call your doctor if your child has a severe sunburn, with blisters or fever, and/or if the sunburn covers a large area of his body.
  • Certain medications, including most medications that are used to treat acne, can make your child more at risk for severe sunburns.
  • People receive more than 50% of their lifetime UV exposure in childhood, so it is important to protect them from the sun and sunburns when they are kids and hopefully help reduce their later risk of skin cancer.
  • While your child is recovering from a sunburn, avoid things that may aggravate his sunburned skin, such as hot baths or showers, and be extra careful to not expose him to the sun. In addition to being painful, the sunburned areas are likely even more susceptible to getting harmed by the sun.
  • See your doctor if your child's sunburn begins to show signs of infection, with increased redness, swelling, pain, or drainage.

Bottom Line 

There are many things you can do to ease the discomfort of your child's sunburn, but remember that there is nothing you can do to "treat" the sunburn itself. In other words, there is nothing available that reverses the damage to DNA and structures in the skin which occurs with a sunburn.

If your child has developed a sunburn, don't beat yourself up as a parent. Sunburns are common. However, take the time to prepare ahead for your child's next day in the sun with a good sunscreen which protects her tender skin from both UVA and UVB rays. With all of the products available, it can be difficult to make the best choice.

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