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If your baby gets a sunburn, call the doctor, even if it looks mild. To ease a toddler's sunburn, offer plenty of fluids, give her a cool bath, and apply a soothing lotion. Protect your child from harmful UV rays with lightweight clothing, sunglasses, and – most important – sunscreen.
Sunburn in a child under age 1 can be more serious than it appears. Call the doctor right away and be prepared to bring your baby in for an exam. He may even need emergency treatment.
If your child is age 1 or older and his skin is just a little pink and tender, you probably don't need to call the doctor. See "When to call the doctor" below for more details.
Why is a sunburn so serious in babies and toddlers?
Young children's skin is very thin and very sensitive, so it can burn quickly, making babies and toddlers more prone to sunburn and skin damage. A child can get burned after only 10 to 15 minutes of exposure, any time of day – even on a cloudy or cool day.
A serious sunburn can lead to dehydration. And because your child has probably been out in the sun and heat, heat exhaustion or heat stroke may also be a concern.
A sunburn needs the same medical attention as any other burn:
- A first-degree burn causes redness, mild swelling, and pain, and usually heals in two to five days.
- A second-degree burn is more painful, with more swelling, redness, and blisters. A second-degree burn can last for a couple of weeks.
Note: You may not notice a sunburn right after you bring your child indoors. The redness and pain of a mild first-degree burn can take several hours to appear.
Do's for treating and soothing sunburn
If your child gets a sunburn, try to keep him as comfortable as possible until the burn heals by following these tips:
- Soak a clean, soft washcloth in cool water, wring it out, and gently place it on the sunburned area for ten to 15 minutes a few times a day, making sure your child doesn't get chilled.
- Try a cool (not cold) bath. To make the bath more soothing, add baking soda or an oatmeal-based bath treatment (found in drugstores). Gently pat your child's skin dry – don't rub.
- Apply a water-based, alcohol-free, perfume-free moisturizing lotion or an aloe vera gel to relieve itching. (There are over-the-counter "cooling lotions" that your child may find soothing.) Gently slather lotions or gels on. Don't rub them in.
- If your toddler's in pain, you can give him children's acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
- If you have a baby younger than 12 months, ask the doctor whether it's okay to offer a pain reliever. (Ibuprofen is recommended for children age 6 months and up.)
- Dress your child in loose clothing and soft fabrics that won't irritate burned skin.
- Keep your child out of the sun until the burn has completely healed. It's very easy for a child who's already sunburned to get a second burn.
- Offer plenty of fluids: breast milk or formula if your child is a baby, or water and other liquids if he's older. This will help replace fluids lost from being out in the sun. Staying hydrated also helps skin heal. Continue providing extra fluids for a few days.
Don'ts for treating and soothing sunburn
- Early on, don't put petroleum-based products like petroleum jelly on your child's skin. These ointments prevent heat and sweat from escaping and can make a burn worse. The same goes for butter and oils. In later stages, petroleum jelly products can be helpful (see below).
- Don't use first-aid sprays or ointments that contain benzocaine. Benzocaine can irritate skin or cause an allergic reaction.
- Don't pop small blisters, but do rupture any large blisters to let the fluid escape. (Use a sterilized needle.) The top of the blister will collapse and form a natural "dressing," helping the wound heal faster than if you leave the blister to break on its own. After blisters break, apply an antibiotic ointment and a nonstick wound dressing. Don't trim off the dead skin.
When to call the doctor
Under 12 months
Call the doctor right away if your baby has a sunburn.
12 months or older
If your toddler has a mild sunburn and his skin is just a little pink and tender, you don't need to call the doctor. If it's more severe, though, treat it like any other serious burn. And if blisters become infected, your child will need antibiotics.
Call the doctor if your child has a sunburn and develops any of these symptoms:
- Blisters in the first 24 hours
- Swelling on hands or face
- Signs of infection, such as pus or red streaks
- Fever or chills
- Nausea or vomiting
- Signs of mild dehydration, such as going more than six hours without urinating, lethargy, dry mouth and parched lips, and no or few tears while crying.
When to seek emergency treatment
- The sunburn covers a large area of his body.
- Your child is in extreme pain.
- Your child shows signs of serious dehydration, such as sunken eyes; cold and splotchy hands and feet; excessive sleepiness or fussiness; lightheadedness, dizziness, or delirium.
- Your child seems very confused or weak.
What if my child's sunburned skin starts peeling?
Peeling is a natural part of the healing process. It usually begins a few days after the sunburn happens. At this point, applying petroleum jelly (or non-petroleum jelly) or a heavy cream emollient may be helpful for itching and healing.
Don't pull the skin off, though.
Does a sunburn make my child more at risk for skin cancer?
Yes. A sunburn means that the skin has been damaged by ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and exposure to UV radiation from the sun is the number one cause of all types of skin cancers. Some studies suggest that severe sunburns during childhood increase the risk of melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – later in life.
Fair-haired, pale-skinned, freckled, and green- or blue-eyed children are most at risk for skin damage and cancer from sun exposure, but ultraviolet radiation is dangerous for everyone.
Learn how to prevent sunburn in our article about sun safety.