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Causes of sunburn

When the skin gets too much sun at once, it will burn.

Skin contains a pigment called melanin, which is stored in special cells called melanocytes. When the skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, it produces more melanin, darkening the skin over time.

This darkening can range from what we commonly call 'tanning' to sunburn.

Fair-skinned children are most sensitive to sunburn, because their skin doesn't have as much melanin as dark-skinned children. But darker-skinned children can also burn.

You don't have to sit in the sun to be exposed to UV radiation, and it doesn't have to be a hot summer day for you or your child to get sunburned. You can still be sunburned on cool or overcast days, or when sun reflects on to you from buildings, water, sand or snow.

Tanning isn't healthy. It's a sign that the skin has been damaged by UV radiation and that it's trying to protect itself from further damage. It does this by producing more melanin.

Symptoms of sunburn

Sunburn can vary from mild redness on the skin, to severe blistering, swelling and pain.

As the sunburn heals, the blisters burst and the skin gets dry and itchy and starts to peel. Most reactions to sunburn start several hours after the skin is exposed to too much sun. They're at their worst around 24-48 hours later.

In the long term, sunburn causes an increased risk of skin cancer, including melanoma. It also leads to early aging and wrinkling of the skin.

When to see your doctor about sunburn

Take your sunburned child to the GP if:

  • your child has blisters that break open or blisters with murky fluid inside them
  • your child has a fever, is shaky and shivering, or seems more tired than usual
  • your child has nausea and vomiting or a headache
  • you can't control your child's pain with the treatment explained below
  • there's a lot of swelling in the area of the burn, or the burn looks infected.

Treatment for sunburn

Severe sunburn is treated like any other burn, and you should see your doctor immediately. You can also put the sunburned area under cool running tap water until you can get help.

Young children are vulnerable to dehydration, which also needs prompt medical attention.

If your child has only minor redness and soreness, and her skin feels warm, prevent further UV exposure by keeping her indoors.

You can give your child paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce the pain and swelling. Make sure to follow the directions on the packet.

Encourage your child to drink a lot of water to replace fluid loss caused by the burn.

Showers might make the pain worse so gentle bathing in cool or lukewarm water is better. It's best to avoid using soap on the area of the burn.

Many over-the-counter ointments and creams that claim to soothe sunburn contain local anaesthetic. Using these on young children isn't recommended because they can cause skin irritation and even allergic reactions.

Sunburn prevention

For healthy development, your child needs to have a small amount of exposure to the sun. This can be as little as 10-15 minutes per day.

Your child's skin burns much more easily than adult skin, so taking care in the sun is important to prevent sunburn. If your child is under 12 months old, keep him out of the direct sun when the UV level is 3 or above. If your child is older, he needs sun protection.

The 'slip, slop, slap, seek and slide' message can help you and your child remember how to prevent sunburn:

  • Slip on clothing to protect your child from the sun. Try to cover as much skin as possible and choose tightly woven fabrics. Consider sun-protective clothing like a rash vest with a ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating of 50+ when your child is swimming or doing other water activities.
  • Slop on sunscreen. It should be broad spectrum, water resistant, SPF 30+ or higher, and in date. Put plenty on your child 20 minutes before she goes out in the sun and reapply every two hours or after swimming. Using sunscreen on babies under six months of age isn't recommended.
  • Slap on a hat. Your child should wear a hat that protects his face, neck, ears and head. A broad-brimmed hat is better than a cap.
  • Seek shade. Keep out of the sun's UV rays by staying in the shade. Look for areas of dark shade, and try to avoid UV rays that might be reflected from nearby objects like windows. You can cover prams with a shade cloth or canopy.
  • Slide on sunglasses. Look for close-fitting, wrap-around sunglasses that meet Australian Standard 1067:2016.

Sunscreen by itself isn't enough. 'Slip, slop, slap, seek and slide' gives your child the most sun protection.

It's also important to stay out of the sun when UV radiation levels are highest. This is between about 9 am and 4 pm, depending on where you are in Australia and the time of year. You can check the UV levels for your area using the SunSmart app on this page or the Bureau of Meteorology UV and sun protection guide.

Be a great role model for your child. If you use sun protection, your child is more likely to do it too.