Tips to prevent sunburn, especially in children, this summer
June 30, 2015
Summertime in Summit County means hikes to Lily Pad Lake, fishing the Blue River and light winds causing green aspen leaves to shimmer on bluebird days. And, while protecting our skin from the sun is a year-round goal, we expose more of it during the warmer months. When we're outside having fun, it's easy to lose track of time — which can lead to sunburn.
We all need some sun exposure; it's our primary source of Vitamin D, which helps us to absorb calcium for stronger, healthier bones. But, it doesn't take much time in the sun for most people to get the vitamin D they need, and repeated unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can cause skin damage, eye damage, immune system suppression and skin cancer.
Most kids rack up a lot of their lifetime sun exposure before age 18, so it's important that parents teach their children how to enjoy fun in the sun safely. With the right precautions, you can greatly reduce your child's — and your — chance of developing skin cancer.
The Skin Cancer Foundation reports some critical statistics about young people, sunburn and melanoma (the most serious form of the disease):
One or more blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence more than double a person's chances of developing melanoma later in life.
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A person's risk for melanoma doubles if they have had more than five sunburns at any age.
90 percent of pediatric melanoma cases occur in patients ages 10–19.
Melanoma is the second most common form of cancer for young people 15–29 years old and the most common form of cancer for young adults ages 25–29.
Each year (for all age groups), there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon.
PROTECTING COLORADO KIDS
First, it is important to acknowledge that any evidence of tanning (for all skin tones) represents sun damage no matter how healthy we perceive its appearance. Building a "suntan base" to avoid a future burn is not a strategy for good health.
Colorado requires special care for UV protection because of its high elevation and 300-plus days of sunshine per year. UV intensity increases about five percent for every 1,000 feet gained in elevation. At more than 9,000 feet above sea level, Summit County is a toaster.
As late as 2006, data from the Colorado Cancer Coalition noted that 40 percent of adults in Colorado experienced at least one sunburn over the course of the year; the rate for kids was 51 percent. We have to do better for ourselves and for our children.
HEALTHY STRATEGIES TO AVOID SUNBURN
Sunburn sneaks up on you: It can take up to 12 hours to show its worst effects, so by the time you see pink, it may already be too late. Combining methods of sun protection boosts the odds of avoiding a burn. Teach your kids to:
Avoid the strongest rays of the day and don't be fooled by clouds: Everyone should stay out of direct sunlight and be well-protected from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Clouds don't filter UV rays, and kids are often unaware that they're developing sunburn on cool or windy days because the temperature or breeze keeps skin feeling cool on the surface.
Take cover: Take the lead to seek out both natural and portable shade, including trees, pergolas, picnic areas, pop-up tents and umbrellas.
Wear protective clothing: Beyond your child's regular attire, a wide variety of SPF-rated clothing is now available. Wide-brimmed hats are a wardrobe essential.
Wear sunglasses: Even a single day in the sun can result in a burned cornea (the outmost layer of the eye). Only sunglasses labeled "100% UV protection" offer safety. Let kids select a fun style with multicolored frames or ones embossed with cartoon characters. Providing sunglasses early in childhood will encourage the healthy habit moving forward.
Double-check medications: Some drugs (antibiotics, acne medications and others) can boost photosensitivity. As a result, severe sunburn can happen in minutes. Even sunscreen may not work in this situation, so have your child stay in the shade and wear protective clothing.
Use sunscreen consistently: For children ages six months or older, select a broad-spectrum lotion or cream with an SPF of 30 or higher and apply it at least 20 minutes before heading outdoors. Re-apply at least every two hours (more frequently if they're swimming). Make sure to cover often neglected areas such as ears, the tops of hands and feet and the back of the neck.
Sprays are not recommended because of chemical-inhalation dangers. Also, kids' formulations often feature fewer fragrances and other ingredients that can cause allergic reactions. And, never use sunscreen for infants under six months: They must be kept out of the sun entirely, dressed in clothing that covers their entire body including hats, sunshades and more.
An ongoing debate about sunscreen ingredients continues. Please know that the risks of using any sunscreen are less than using none at all, so research your preferences, and use it liberally.
When kids get sunburned, they usually experience pain and a sensation of heat — symptoms that tend to become more severe several hours after sun exposure. Some also develop chills. Because the sun has dried their skin, it can become itchy and tight. Sunburned skin begins to peel about a week after the sunburn. Encourage your child not to scratch or peel off loose skin because the fresh layer underneath the sunburn is vulnerable to repeated burns and infection.
If your child gets sunburn:
Have them take a cool (not cold) bath, or gently apply cool, wet compresses to the skin to help alleviate pain and heat.
Barring allergies, apply pure aloe vera gel.
Give your child ibuprofen or acetaminophen to lessen the pain. Do not give aspirin to children or teens.
Apply topical moisturizing cream to rehydrate the skin and treat itching. For the more seriously sunburned areas, apply a thin layer of one-percent hydrocortisone cream to help with pain. Do not use petroleum-based products because they prevent excess heat and sweat from escaping. Also, avoid first-aid products that contain benzocaine, which may cause skin irritation or allergy.
Severe sunburns with multiple blisters may warrant a doctor visit. Do not allow your child to scratch, pop or squeeze the blisters, which can become easily infected and can result in scarring.
SET A GOOD EXAMPLE
Teaching our kids to love the outdoors is part of the reason we enjoy our lives here. There's no reason to limit our activities as long as we prepare in advance. Show your kids how to be sun safe, and let them see you doing the same. Preventive behaviors should become a habit to reduce your risk of sun damage and to teach your kids good sun sense.
Dr. Adam Loomis provides pediatric services at High Country Healthcare's Frisco office. For more information, visit http://www.highcountryhealth.com.