Sunburn is a painful skin reaction to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
You can be exposed to UV radiation whenever you’re outside during the day – it doesn’t have to be a bright, sunny or hot day. It’s very common to get sunburned on cool or overcast days, or when sun reflects from buildings, water, sand or snow.
Anyone can get sunburned on any part of the body that’s not properly protected. Fair-skinned people are most sensitive, but darker-skinned people can also burn.
You can’t see or feel UV radiation, so it can damage the skin before you realise.
Tanning is when UV radiation causes the skin to darken over time. It 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.
Symptoms of sunburn
Sunburn can vary from mild to severe.
Symptoms of mild sunburn include:
- pinkness or redness on light-coloured skin
- stinging and aching skin
- dry, itching and peeling skin 3-8 days after the sunburn.
Symptoms of severe sunburn are like the symptoms of other severe burns. They include:
- skin blisters
- severe pain
- cramping, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headache or sleepiness
- fever or a low body temperature.
Severe sunburn might also cover a larger area of the body.
Sunburn symptoms usually start several hours after the skin is exposed to too much UV radiation. They’re at their worst 24-48 hours later.
Does your child need to see a doctor about sunburn?
If your child has symptoms of mild sunburn, you can usually treat it at home following the steps below.
You should take your child to the GP if you can’t control their pain.
You should take your child to the GP or nearest hospital emergency department as soon as possible if your child has severe sunburn or develops any of the severe sunburn symptoms described above.
Mild sunburn treatment
Here’s how to treat mild sunburn at home. Depending on how old your child is, you might need to give them more or less help and encouragement with these steps:
- Get out of the sun and stay inside if possible.
- Have a cool bath or put cool towels onto the sunburned areas. But avoid getting too cold.
- Use paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain relief, according to the instructions on the packet.
- Apply a simple moisturising cream to the sunburned areas. If you’re using aloe vera gel, test it on a small area of skin first to make sure it doesn’t cause irritation. If you don’t know what cream to use, check with your pharmacist.
- Keep blisters intact because they act as a natural dressing on the top of the sunburn.
- Drink extra water or oral rehydration fluids to prevent dehydration over the next few days.
Severe sunburn treatment
For severe sunburn, put the sunburned area under cool running tap water or use cold packs until your child can see a doctor.
Treatment might include:
- pain relief
- special dressings to help the sunburn heal
- antibiotics to prevent or treat any infections.
Your child might also need to be admitted to hospital for fluids to prevent and treat severe dehydration.
Prevention of sunburn
To prevent sunburn and protect their skin, your child needs to take sun safety precautions when they’re outside or in the sun.
The ‘slip, slop, slap, seek and slide’ message can help you and your child remember how to prevent sunburn:
- Slip on clothing to protect skin 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 an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating of 50+ when swimming or doing other water activities.
- Slop on sunscreen. It should be broad spectrum, water resistant, SPF 30+ or higher, and in date. Put on plenty of sunscreen 20 minutes before going out in the sun and reapply every two hours or after swimming. Sunscreen isn’t recommended for babies under six months of age.
- Slap on a hat. It’s best to wear a hat that protects the 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, but ensure that air can still get through to your child.
- 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 and prevents sunburn. And effective sun protection in childhood helps to prevent future skin cancers and skin ageing.
Be a great role model for your child. If you’re safe in the sun, your child is more likely to be sun safe too.