Montana Public Radio

Dr. Starbuck Explains: How To Deal With Sunburns

Feb 18, 2020

Have you ever been sunburned? It hurts, doesn’t it? Your skin gets a tender, scratchy, crinkly feeling. Anything that touches hurts, even a sheet or a t shirt.

Sunburn is an injury, not a disease. It’s not like the flu or a sore throat and it’s different than a burn from touching something hot. No sunburn is a slow overcooking of your skin.

When ultraviolet light from the sun shines directly on your skin, skin cells respond. They do some good things, like make vitamin D which helps build your bones, and they make melanin which makes you tan and protects your skin. But when skin cells get too much sun, your skin gets inflamed. It gets red and swollen and hot - and that’s sunburn. Ouch!

In addition to feeling pain, some kids actually get sick when they get sunburned. They can have a fever and nausea and throw up. Their skin can blister and crack; some kids get herpes blisters on their mouth or face from too much sun. The sun is powerful, so you’ve just got to be careful when you play and swim and spend time outside.

Your parents can help you put on sunscreen, a lotion that protects your skin from burning. Scientists have figured out that the best sunscreens are the ones with vitamin C and E and A in them. These are anti-oxidant vitamins. They help the skin stay healthy while the sunscreen ingredients protect from burning. You have to put on sunscreen before you go out in the sun; if you wait until after you start to burn, sunscreen won’t work.

Kids should not rely on sunscreen for 100 percent of their sunburn defense. Your skin and whole body work hard when stressed by the sun, so you’ve got to protect yourself with rest. Once every two hours, get in the shade for 15 minutes, drink a big glass of water, and enjoy a break from the sun. When you’re having fun, time flies by, so ask your parents to help you keep track and tell you when it’s time for your sun break.

Wear a hat whenever you can. Your scalp can get burned and it’s pretty hard to put sunscreen on your head! A hat also gives shade to your face and eyes.

Wear a long sleeved shirt and pants whenever you can comfortably do that. Clothing works much better than sunscreen at protecting you from sunburn. Wear a bandana soaked in cold water around your neck. It will keep your neck from getting burned and help you stay cool.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, you still get sunburned. If that happens, natural medicine can really help. My favorite treatment is calendula, a bright yellow or orange flower in the marigold family. You can grow calendula in your garden or buy dried calendula flowers. For sunburn, make a strong tea using one cup of calendula flowers in two quarts of water. Let the tea steep for at least 15 minutes, then strain it and rub the tea all over your burned skin. You can also use calendula tincture directly on your skin instead of tea.

Kids can help their skin defend against sunburn by eating food that has lots of beta carotene. Beta carotene is in fruits and vegetables that are orange in color – so carrots, melons, apricots, sweet potatoes, peaches, nectarines; many yummy summer foods are helpful for sunburn prevention!

Of course, drinking plenty of water is an important part of preventing and treating sunburn. If you are dehydrated, your dried out skin will burn more easily. If you are already sunburnt, drinking fluids will help you feel better and speed your healing.

Spending time outside is one of the healthiest things kids can do. So go outside whenever you can and don’t be afraid of the sun. Just be smart about it and remember that part of your job as a human is to take good care of your unique and special body!

I’m Dr. Jamison Starbuck, and I’m wishing you well.

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