Uh oh – your child just showed signs of a sunburn. What can you do to treat it, and how can you prevent the next one? Unlike a burn from a hot stove, sunburn symptoms don’t appear right away. It could be up to 4 hours before you realize that your child has a sunburn. According to experts, once you detect or suspect a sunburn, you should do the following right away:

  1. Get your child out of the sun.
  2. Make sure she drinks plenty of water to prevent dehydration.
  3. Apply cool, wet cloths to the burned area to help make her more comfortable. Cool (not cold) baths are another option.
  4. Get medical care if needed. (See sidebar below.)

First Aid for Sunburn Symptoms

Of course, you’ll want to help sunburned skin heal and make the symptoms go away quickly. Dr. Ted Lain, a board-certified dermatologist in Austin, says, “The first thing to realize is that any treatment you use is unlikely to make the sunburn go away faster or reduce peeling. You also can’t do anything to prevent the damage caused by the sunburn. All you can do is to help make your child less uncomfortable and itchy.”

Dr. Lain explains some treatments to consider:

  • Calming and numbing gels are helpful for pain and tenderness. Look for products with lidocaine (to numb) and aloe vera (to soothe).
  • Moisturizing creams will help make peeling skin more comfortable, although these products will not reduce peeling. Dr. Lain cautions not to pick off the peeling, dry skin. This can lead to scarring or infection.
  • The NSAIDS group of over-the-counter drugs (such as Tylenol, Advil or Aleve) can help reduce swelling. Remember that Advil or Aleve can cause sun sensitivity, so keep your child out of the sun any time she is taking either of these products.

Preventing Future Sunburns

Experts suggest you take a few minutes to think about why your child got a sunburn. A history of sunburns, especially early in life, can increase the risk of skin cancer. Protecting children from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation is an important responsibility for every parent and caregiver.

Here are some possible reasons for sunburn and solutions to prevent it from happening again:

Reason:  The child didn’t put on sunscreen.

Solution: Educate your child about sun safety and the reasons for protecting skin from UV rays. Make putting on sunscreen part of the “getting ready” process. For example, brush your teeth, then put on your sunscreen. Insist that your child take responsibility for remembering this important task.


Reason: Your child put on sunscreen but it “didn’t work.”

Solution: Make sure your child applies sunscreen early enough and thickly enough. Dr. Lain advises “Apply a thick layer of sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before going outside or swimming.” One ounce of sunscreen (enough to fill up a shot glass) is considered enough by the American Academy of Dermatology. Also, make sure that the sunscreen has not expired or been stored in a hot environment, such as in the trunk of the car during the summer.


Reason: Your child put on sunscreen earlier in the day but got a sunburn later in the afternoon.

Solution: No sunscreen will last all day. “Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours or as directed on the package. Also, reapply after swimming or sweating,” advises Dr. Lain.


Reason: It was a cloudy day, so I didn’t think there was enough sun to cause a sunburn.

Solution: “Clouds don’t block UV rays,” explains Dr. Lain. “Don’t forget to apply sunscreen even if it is cool and cloudy.”


Reason: Your child wants to get a tan.

Solution: Educate yourself and your child about the dangers of tanning.

Tanning Myths

Many people don’t understand the dangers of tanning. The Burning Truth Initiative was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help educate the public. Quiz yourself – do you know the “burning truth” or still believe any of the following tanning myths?

Tanning myth #1: A “base” tan will help protect against sunburn and sun damage.

The burning truth: A tan is evidence that the body has had damage from UV rays. A “base tan” doesn’t protect against future UV exposure, sunburn or skin damage.

Tanning myth #2: Tanned skin is healthier than skin without a tan.

The burning truth: “A tan is not an indication of health or well-being,” counsels Dr. Lain. “A tan is a response by the skin cells to DNA damage. Avoid tanning just as much as sunburn.”

Tanning myth #3: Indoor tanning is safe.

The burning truth: “Sensible indoor tanning is a myth,” cautions the CDC. Indoor tanning exposes the body to intense UV rays, increasing the risk of melanoma. Melanoma is the second most common cancer for women in their 20’s.

When to Get Medical Care for a Sunburn

Get medical care if your sunburned child has:

  • A severe sunburn that covers more than 15% of the body
  • Dehydration
  • Fever higher than 101° F
  • Extreme pain that lasts longer than 2 days

Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.

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