Skip to main content

The question: My children participate in a lot of outdoor activities such as summing and soccer over the summer months. As a family we love being outdoors. How do I protect them from too much sun exposure?

The answer: Summertime is definitely "fun in the sun" time and I encourage families to get outdoors, get active, and enjoy all that summer has to offer. Too much sun exposure however, and sunburn in particular, can be detrimental to the health of children and teens. Fortunately, with a few precautions and a little common sense, your children can be protected from the harmful effects of the sun.

Sunburn is dangerous and should be avoided at all cost. Although youngsters with fair complexions are at highest risk, even children with dark skin tones can get a sunburn. At best, mild sunburns are a painful nuisance that can negatively affect a child's sleep and behaviour. However, severe burns can be associated with life-threatening sunstroke, dehydration and permanent skin damage and scarring.

Perhaps most frightening is the direct relationship between the number and severity of sunburns and the risk of skin cancer later in life. According to the American Melanoma Foundation, melanoma is now the most common form of cancer among 25-to-29-year-olds and the second most common for 15-to-29-year-olds. Even one severe sunburn in childhood can double an individual's lifetime risk of skin cancer.

If your child does get a sunburn it is important to remove them immediately from direct sunlight, preferably to a cool indoor environment. Insist that your child rehydrate by drinking a large amount of fluids. Administer acetaminophen or ibuprofen for the pain. Avoid applying any creams or gels in the first 24 hours, however a cool bath may provide some relief. Seek medical attention if a large amount of skin has been burned or if there is blistering. Be particularly cautious with sunburned preschool infants.

Of course prevention is always the best medicine so I recommend the following:

1. Keep babies less than a year old out of direct sunlight. If this is not possible, cover as much of their skin as possible with cool, light clothing and a hat. Also apply sunscreen to any exposed skin.

2. Keep in mind that the sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you are out during these hours, take regular breaks from the sun by periodically coming indoors, utilizing the shade and drinking plenty of fluids.

3. Don't be fooled by cloud cover. About 80 per cent of UV rays pass through the clouds causing unexpected sunburns on overcast summer days.

4. Choose a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB light and has an SPF factor of at least 30. Products that contain zinc or titanium are particularly effective at blocking ultraviolet rays and are relatively waterproof. Don't skimp either. Apply sunscreen generously and repeatedly throughout the day, especially after swimming.

5. Finally, be particularly cautious in the sun if you child is taking medication. Some drugs, especially certain common antibiotics can cause individuals to be very sensitive to even minimal amounts of sun exposure. If in doubt, ask your pharmacist or your physician.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

Click here to submit your questions. Our Health Experts will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct