This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Susila Shanmuganathan, Family Practice resident at the University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.
It’s summer time, and the heat is on…on your child’s skin! With the sun out, her soft and beautiful skin is at risk for sunburn. Sunburn is very common, with more than 30% of adults and 70% of children and adolescents getting at least one sunburn per year. Although most aren’t severe, a lifetime of sun exposure significantly increases the risk of skin cancer, and wrinkles. And it hurts! When kids hurt, they whine, and no one wants that on vacation.
Sunburn can be sneaky. Unlike other types of burns, sunburn may not show immediately, because it takes three to five hours for redness to develop after being out. Redness peaks at about 12 to 24 hours after sun exposure and fades over 72 hours.
What increases your risk of sunburn? One factor is the amount of pigment in your skin, called melanin. Melanin protects from burns, so really pale kids burn easier than their darker skinned friends. Also, where you are in the World counts. The close you are to the equator and the higher your altitude, the more rays you get and risk increases. So if you’re heading to Central America or the Caribbean with the kiddos, or hiking in the Rockies, pack the sunblock!
Another thing we often forget is that certain medications make skin more sensitive to burning. These include certain antibiotics, some blood pressure medications, and even something as simple as ibuprofen. So before you go the beach, make sure your 15-year-old on Doxycycline for his acne is okay with having a red face for a few days. Better still, put on the block!
If your child does get sunburn, there are treatments. First, stay out of the sun until the redness and pain resolve. Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, or generic) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can relieve the pain. These should be started as soon as the burn is noticed, since the benefits tend to decrease after 24 hours. Cool compresses, aloe-based lotions, and lotions with local anesthetic may help too.
A friend of mine once went on a misson trip to the Philippines. He schlepped his snorkeling gear half way around the world because he had heard about the beautiful coral reefs there. When his day at the beach came, he forgot about sunblock or wearing a sunshirt. While snorkeling the cool water kept him from realizing what the near-equatorial sun was doing to his skin. The next morning he had sunburn so bad it blistered his back and shoulders- a second degree sunburn! Sleeping was tough, but fortunately aloe was handy and he smeared that on generously.
Lesson to be learned: when in the beam, use the ‘screen! Here are some tips to using sunscreen most effectively. Put it on 15 minutes before going out in the sun: the better it dries, the harder it is to rub or sweat off. Be sure to cover all surfaces, including ears. I remember an old OB/GYN attending, an avid sailor, who had notches in his ears where pre-cancerous growths had had to be cut out.
Applying sunscreen just once isn’t enough. Sunscreen is washed off by water, rubbed off by towels and sand, and sweat off when your kids run around in the heat. You need to re-apply at least every 2 hours during peak burning times (roughly 10 am to 5pm) to properly protect your kids. Apply more often for the very active swimming and running and toweling kids.
Another strategy is to avoid sun exposure in the first place. Shade is your kid’s friend- umbrellas, beach tents, leafy trees, shaded porches. Some fair-skinned kids just can’t get enough sunblock, they burn so easily. These kids benefit from protective clothing- long sleeve shirts, long pants, big brimmed hats, and sunglasses. They now make shirts and pants that are light enough to be cool and have SPF (Sun Protective Factor) ratings just like sunscreen.
Fun in the sun is something that even the littlest ones look forward to, but be prepared for the damage that can be done. Remember: cover that beautiful baby skin with protective clothing and high SPF sunblock to keep the fun, in the sun!