A Family History
About 10 percent of melanoma cases run in the family. If your child has a first-degree relative -- you, your spouse, or a sibling -- who develops melanoma, he has a 50 percent greater chance of getting this cancer than someone without a family history. (If the cancer occurs in a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle, there's still a risk but it's not as great.)
Moles that are present at birth are the most dangerous. But the bulk of kids develop moles in response to sun exposure, and the more moles your child has, the greater her risk of developing melanoma later in life, says Elizabeth McBurney, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine, in New Orleans.
Bad burns -- as well as cumulative exposure to UV rays -- can cause genetic mutations in the skin that increase the risk of developing melanoma.
Fair Skin and Light Hair
If your child only has a little pigment (melanin) in her skin, she's more vulnerable to UV radiation. "Kids with fair skin have about four times the risk of developing skin cancer later in life than kids with a darker complexion," says Parents advisor Lawrence Eichenfield, MD, chief of pediatric and adolescent dermatology at Rady Children's Hospital, in San Diego. Redheads and blonds have a two- to fourfold increased risk of developing melanoma -- even if they do tan.
Living in a Southern Latitude or at a High Altitude
It's no surprise that children who live in Florida are exposed to more sun and are more likely to develop skin cancer than kids who live in northern Maine. But the same holds true if your home is in the mountains of Colorado or California. "Living at higher elevations exposes you to more UV radiation -- about 4 or 5 percent more for every 1,000 feet above sea level," says Dr. McBurney.
Being an Athlete
If your child plays a sport like soccer, swimming, or track, she'll spend more time in the sun -- and a study from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that 85 percent of young athletes don't use sunscreen. But this is one risk factor that's reversible; make sure your child goes out to the field wearing sunscreen and, when possible, UV-protective clothing.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the June 2008 issue of Parents magazine.