Ask Dr. Marla: Treating Sunburn

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What’s the best way to treat a sunburn?

A. You know the answer is to avoid it! One blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life. A person’s risk for melanoma also doubles if he or she has had five or more sunburns at any age. It may take a few days to even see the full extent of the damage and skin may peel for up to one full week. For a baby under a year, severe sunburn can be a medical emergency. For those older than a year with severe pain, blistering, loss of interest, lethargy, or fever, seek medical attention. Severe sunburn can cause dehydration, so watch to make sure your child is urinating. For moderate sunburn, acetaminophen can help with pain and fever. A bath in tepid water can help soothe and cool the skin. A moisturizing cream, many of which contain aloe, or 1% hydrocortisone cream can be used under doctor supervision, however, do not rub it in aggressively. Never use alcohol on the area. Also, there is little evidence that creams with anesthetics, such as lidocaine or benzocaine, are helpful. If blisters form, do not break them as that can slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection. It might be necessary to cover these areas with a light gauze but I would encourage this be done under a doctor’s guidance. Don’t let your child back out into the sun until until there is complete healing. And it is critical to ensure proper protection prior to being outside again. 

Check out these sunburn prevention tips from the Canadian Dermatology Association:

  • Whenever possible, schedule physical activity outdoors before 11 a.m. and after 4 p.m. when the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation is less intense.
  • Use maximum sun protection if outside during this time period, especially between noon and 2 p.m., the peak UV period.
  • Seek shade under trees, umbrellas or awnings whenever possible.
  • Plan ahead. Find out what the UV Index rating is forecast to be and use the index to guide your protection.
  • Dress in loose, lightweight clothing that covers as much of the body as possible, whenever possible.
  • Wear a hat with a 7.5 cm (3 inch) or wider brim. Hats with flaps of fabric that cover the back of the neck are also recommended. Don’t forget sunglasses.
  • Use a broad spectrum sunscreen (blocks UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of 30 or higher. Use a water resistant, sweat resistant or sport sunscreen if you are involved in activities in water or will perspire a lot during the activity. Reapply the sunscreen after swimming, toweling or heavy perspiration. Apply an SPF 30 or higher broad spectrum lip balm, too.

Published June 2010

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