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Summer Series: How to Treat a Sunburn

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Seeing that we have discussed sunburn and its prevention, this unfortunately brings us to the topic of  ”what to do if you forgot the sunscreen and are now dealing with a sunburn?”  Sunburn is no fun for anyone and can cause significant problems. A sunburn by definition is an “acute inflammatory reaction that follows excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation.”  In other words it is not a thermal burn, but an ultraviolet burn.

Sunburns may cause first-degree burns, when a child’s skin turns pink and red and is uncomfortable, and itchy. Sunburn may also cause second-degree burns where the burn penetrates the dermis and causes blistering and a deeper burn and more cell damage. With blistering may come scarring and also an increased risk of skin cancer and skin damage later in their lifetime. Repetitive sunburns are cumulative and put a child at even more risk for melanoma. Recurrent sunburns are often seen on the nose, ears, chest, and shoulders.

Symptoms of sunburn often don’t begin until 2-4 hours after the damage has begun. Redness will be the first symptom and may progress over the next 12 -24 hours with further pain, swelling and blistering. Some children will even develop nausea, fever, vomiting or dizziness after a significant sunburn and are at risk for dehydration. Treatment of sunburn includes moisturization to cool the skin and reduce inflammation. This may also include taking cool baths or applying cool, wet cloths to the sunburned area. A product called Domeboro is also soothing when added to the bath or to cloths that you soak in the solution. Push fluids orally to replace fluid losses. Giving your child a pain reliever like Tylenol or Motrin/Advil to help with discomfort may be beneficial. Some children also respond to an oral antihistamine to help with itching.

Do NOT let your child back in the sun until their symptoms are improved and even then they should wear sun protective clothing as well as sunscreen. Remember, you can even get a burn in the shade, or under an umbrella or on a cloudy day. Most of us heard that from our own mother’s but unfortunately did not believe it until we ourselves had experienced a sunburn.

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question or comment to Dr. Sue!

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