A sunburn is the burning, redness, or blistering of the skin caused by overexposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun or a sunlamp. Most people have been sunburned many times. Vacations can quickly turn into painful experiences when the power of the sun is overlooked.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of sunburn do not begin until 2 to 4 hours after the sun's damage has been done. The peak reaction of redness, pain, and swelling is not seen for 24 hours. Minor sunburn is a first-degree burn which turns the skin pink or red. Prolonged sun exposure can cause blistering and a second-degree burn. Sunburn never causes a third-degree burn or scarring.
Repeated sun exposure and suntans cause premature aging of the skin (wrinkling, sagging, and brown sunspots). Repeated sunburns increase the risk of skin cancer in the damaged area. Each blistering sunburn doubles the risk of developing malignant melanoma, which is the most serious type of skin cancer.
The sensation of pain and heat will probably last 48 hours. Ibuprofen products (such as Advil) started early and continued for 2 days can greatly reduce the discomfort. Nonprescription 1% hydrocortisone cream applied 3 times a day may also reduce swelling and pain but only if the cream is used soon after your child was sunburned. Continue using the hydrocortisone cream for 2 days. Do not use petroleum jelly or other ointments because they keep heat and sweat from escaping.
The symptoms can also be helped by taking cool baths or putting cold wet cloths on the burned area several times a day. Showers are usually too painful.
Your child should drink extra water to replace the fluid lost into the swelling of sunburned skin and to prevent dehydration and dizziness.
Peeling usually occurs in about a week. Put a moisturizing cream on the skin.
If your child has broken blisters, trim off the dead skin with small scissors. Then apply an antibiotic ointment (no prescription needed). Wash off and reapply the ointment twice a day for 3 days.
Avoid putting ointments or butter on a sunburn. They are painful to remove and not helpful.
Don't buy any first aid creams or sprays for burns. They often contain benzocaine, which can cause an allergic rash.
Don't confuse sunscreens, which block the sun's burning rays, with suntan lotions or oils, which mainly lubricate the skin.
Apply sunscreen any time your child is going to be outdoors for more than 30 minutes a day. Wear a hat with a brim. Set a good example. Apply sunscreen to your own skin as well as your child's skin.
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to prevent sunburn. Although skin cancer occurs in adults, it is caused by the sun exposure and sunburns that occurred during childhood. Every time you protect your child from too much sun exposure, you are helping prevent skin cancer.
There are good sunscreens on the market that prevent sunburn but still permit gradual tanning to occur. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that screens out both UVA and UVB rays.
The sun protection factor (SPF) or filtering power of a sunscreen product determines what percentage of the ultraviolet rays get through to the skin. An SPF of 15 allows only 1/15 (7%) of the sun's rays to get through and thereby extends safe sun exposure from 20 minutes to 5 hours without sunburning. No matter what the stated SPF rating, no sunscreen product available provides 100% protection. An SPF higher than 15 is rarely needed because protection against sunburn for 5 hours is usually sufficient.
Fair-skinned children (with red or blond hair) need a sunscreen with an SPF of 30. The simplest approach is to use an SPF of 15 or greater on all other children.
Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before exposure to the sun to give it time to penetrate the skin. Give special attention to the areas most likely to become sunburned, such as the nose, ears, cheeks, and shoulders.
Most products need to be reapplied every 3 to 4 hours, as well as immediately after swimming or heavy sweating. A "waterproof" sunscreen stays on for about 30 minutes in water. Most people apply too little sunscreen. Use about as much sunscreen as you would lotion on dry skin.
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