How to Treat Sunburn in Kids

Boy with sunburned face

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Even when parents do their best to protect their kids from too much sun, many children will still end up with a sunburn at some point. So, it's important to know how to identify a sunburn, what to do about it, when to call a doctor, and how to prevent future sunburns in kids.

Like other burns, sunburns can cause first-degree burns, which are the most common type, but more severe sunburns can lead to second-degree burns, and more rarely, third-degree burns.

Parents should be aware that both UVB and UVA rays can damage their kids' 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.

Kids' Sunburn Symptoms

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 one to 24 hours later. Symptoms can include pain, red skin that may have blisters, and sometimes fever.

Even though sunburns are more common in children with lighter skin, black children and other children of color can still get sunburned as well. Regardless of skin color, sunburned skin can be sensitive to the touch, feel hot, painful, irritated, or itchy.

Because it may be harder to detect the redness of a sunburn in kids with darker skin, it is important for parents to watch for signs of heat stroke from sun exposure including headaches, dizziness, nausea, swollen skin, fever, or muscle cramps.

Most kids recover from their sunburns over the course of two to seven days, depending on how bad it was, to begin with, and with the first few days being the worst. After four to seven days, your child's sunburned skin will usually peel.

Sunburn Complications

Depending on the severity of your child's sunburn, they may be at risk for complications. Each can lead to significant health impacts if not addressed, so it is important to pay close attention if any of the following complications present with your child's sunburn.

Blisters

More severe sunburns that cause second-degree burns can have blisters that develop on the skin. These small, fluid-filled sacs will typically burst within a few days from forming and then heal completely within two weeks. Do not pop the blisters intentionally, as this can lead to infection. Keep blistered areas clean and dry as possible, coving with loose gauze.

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. The medical term for this type of sun exposure rash is polymorphous light eruption, which can present as small, red dots on the skin, eczema-like patches, or target-shaped lesions one to two days after sun exposure.

Less commonly, a condition known as solar urticaria may occur in sunburned children in which both redness and hives are present, but typically resolves within several hours post-sun exposure.

Heat Stress

Heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion (the precursor to the more serious heat stroke) can happen to children during sun exposure regardless of whether or not their skin appears to be sunburned. When an increase in core body temperature due to sun exposure is combined with a lack of hydration, heat exhaustion can occur.

A child with a red face during sun exposure may not actually have a sunburn yet, but they could be experiencing a form of heat stress that can cause health complications if not treated. If your child experiences weakness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or headache, with pale, warn, and moist skin, it's important to remove them from the heat and seek medical attention.

When to Call the Doctor

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. Increased redness, yellow discharge from blisters, and skin swelling can be signs of infection that may require medical attention.

Additionally, seek medical treatment if your child is particularly lethargic, begins vomiting, or experiences severe dizziness.

Treating a Child's Sunburn

There are many things you can do to ease the discomfort of your child's sunburn, but there is nothing you can do to reverse the damage to DNA and structures in the skin which occurs with a sunburn. 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.

When you first notice a child's sunburn, immediately remove them from the sun if you haven't already. Then, offer pain reducers, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) and apply a cool, wet compress over the affected area. Make sure that your child is given extra fluids so that they don't get dehydrated.

Cool baths and showers can help to relieve the heat and pain associated with sunburns, as can applying soothing lotions that contain aloe vera. An oral antihistamine and topical moisturizers can be used once the sunburned areas begin to peel and become itchy.

For severe sunburns, prescription-strength pain medicine and prescription burn cream like Silvadene may be necessary to reduce significant pain. Additionally, corticosteroids are used rarely and only with severe sunburns.

Sunburn Relief Don'ts

While your child is recovering from a sunburn, avoid things that may aggravate his sunburned skin, such as hot baths or showers and lotions that contain benzocaine. Be extra careful to not expose them to the sun. In addition to being painful, the sunburned areas are likely even more susceptible to getting harmed by the sun.

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.

Sun Safety

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.

People with fair skin and freckles can also be at a higher risk for developing sunburns with even limited sun exposure, so protection for kids in these groups is key. Certain medications, including most medications that are used to treat acne, can also increase your child's risk of severe sunburns.

Every sunburn your child gets can put them at increased risk for skin cancer later in life. Following these sun safety tips can help prevent sunburns :

  • Apply sunscreen at least 15 to 30 minutes before going outside over all exposed areas of the body.
  • Avoid sun exposure during peak times from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when UV rays are the strongest.
  • Routinely use a broad spectrum sunscreen or sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Wear protective clothing including sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, and loose, long-sleeved shirts and pants with a tight weave.

Babies are also susceptible to sunburns. Although it is best to keep babies younger than 6 months out of direct sunlight and use protective clothing and hats to help reduce exposure, you can also apply a small amount of sunscreen to exposed skin when necessary.

A Word From Verywell

If your child develops a sunburn, don't beat yourself up as a parent. Sunburns are common and there are ways to ease the pain they cause, but prevention is the best approach. Take the time to prepare ahead for your child's next day in the sun with a good sunscreen which protects their tender skin from both UVA and UVB rays.

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