Sun Poisoning Symptoms and Treatment for Kids

Is your child suffering more than a sunburn? Here’s how to recognize and treat sun poisoning in kids, with tips for keeping your family safe in the sun. 

Happy baby boy at the beach
Photo: Getty Images

Nothing screams "summer" like some good old-fashioned fun in the sun. Yet while warm weather activities keeps kids energized and entertained, unprotected exposure to UV rays can be harmful for your little one. Indeed, prolonged sun exposure can lead to dehydration, burnt skin, and even sun poisoning—an extreme form of sunburn that's often accompanied by uncomfortable skin reactions and flu-like symptoms. Here are some tips for identifying (and alleviating) sun poisoning so your kiddos can have a safe summer outdoors.

What Is Sun Poisoning?

Though the term may sound misleading, "sun poisoning" doesn't actually involve poisoning at all. The non-scientific phrase instead refers to an extreme sunburn, caused by exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays for a prolonged period of time.

So how do you get sun poisoning? It usually happens when kids play in the sun while UV rays are strongest (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.), don't wear sunscreen, or forget to reapply sunscreen. Also, according to the Cleveland Clinic, certain factors can increase your child's risk of sun poisoning; these include having fair skin and light hair, living near the equator, having a family history of skin cancer, and taking certain medications.

Symptoms of Sun Poisoning

Sun poisoning has similar physical symptoms to a sunburn, evident by blistering red skin and rashes. You might also notice tenderness of the skin, itchiness, and increased sensitivity. Symptoms generally appear within the first few hours of sun exposure, and they might stick around for several days.

Other potential sun poisoning symptoms to look for include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Dehydration

Note that sun poisoning symptoms can vary in severity, and they'll look different for everyone. Always contact your child's doctor if you notice symptoms of sun poisoning.

How Can You Treat Sun Poisoning?

When dealing with sun poisoning, stay indoors until symptoms have improved, says Rashmi Jain, M.D., Concierge Pediatrician in Irvine, California and Founder of BabiesMD. She adds that cool baths and wash cloth compresses can help soothe inflamed skin, while ibuprofen (in children older than 6 months of age) can alleviate fevers.

"Rehydrate your child slowly and steadily by giving them fluids to drink,"says Dr. Jain, who recommends Pedialyte or water. "Cooling, calming lotions like aloe vera or calamine can ease irritation from the burn."

Symptoms typically start improving in a few days, though severe cases can last a bit longer. Treating sun poisoning early can lessen discomfort and speed up the healing process. Talk to your doctor if you feel like your child isn't healing properly.

When Should You Seek Medical Care for Sun Poisoning?

It can often be difficult to determine when sun poisoning is minor, and when you should get professionals involved. Dr. Jain advises seeking medical attention if your child is fussy, vomiting, unable to keep fluids down, excessively tired, or not urinating at least every 4-6 hours.

Elizabeth Shepard, M.D., general pediatrician in the Division of General Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine, says to look out for blistering and peeling skin, and to pay attention to your child's pain level. "If they're in serious pain, I would recommend calling your child's doctor and possibly taking them to the emergency room," says Dr. Shepard.

How Can You Prevent Sun Poisoning?

Sun poisoning prevention tactics are similar to those used to ward off sunburns and other sun exposure issues. Of course, avoiding the sun is the most effective way to stay safe, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun is strongest. But Dr. Jain emphasizes that sunburns come from UV rays, not just direct sunlight. "It's important to remember that even if we think we are shaded or cool under a tree, UV rays are still around," she says.

Dr. Jain says parents should apply sunscreen to their children 30 minutes prior to going in the sun and reapply every 80 to 120 minutes. Reapply more often if your child is swimming, sweating, or spending time outdoors during strong midday sunlight. Read the instructions on your sunscreen for specific timing guidelines.

The type of sunscreen you choose also matters. Experts recommend mineral-based sunscreens with at least SPF 30 that use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to protect from UVA & UVB rays ."[Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide] are what you call "physical blockers" of the sun, so they reflect sunlight off the skin," says Dr. Shepard. She advises avoiding chemical sunscreens with ingredients like octinoxate or oxybenzone, as they're associated with hormone disruption and other negative health consequences. Kids should be especially wary of these ingredients because they naturally have more porous skin than adults, adds Dr. Shepard.

Also remember that sunscreens aren't the only way to protect yourself from the sun. When venturing outside, Dr. Shepard recommends wearing loose-fitting clothing that covers your arms and legs, a hat to protect your face, and sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV rays, which can lead to cataracts in adulthood.

Finally, you should consider your child's personal risk factors. Some things, like certain medications and health conditions, can increase your chances of sun poisoning. "If you are taking any kind of prescription medication, it's always good to check and see if it indicates on the packaging label that you could be more sensitive," explains Dr. Shepard.

Protecting Babies from Sun Poisoning

For the youngest kids, sun protection might look a little different. Dr. Jain says she doesn't recommend putting sunscreen on children younger than 6 months old, as babies have a higher chance of suffering sunscreen side effects (like rashes), according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She also advises against giving infants water to drink. That's because water could inhibit a baby's' ability to absorb the necessary nutrients in formula or breast milk, and it's also linked to water intoxication in little ones. Instead, Dr. Jain recommends that parents hydrate infants with breast milk or formula, keep them covered and in the shade, and have them cool down indoors after small 20 to 30 minute periods of time outside.

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