How to treat a child’s sunburn

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Even when we do our best to prevent sunburn, it sometimes happens. It’s easy to miss a spot when applying sunscreen (especially if you’ve got a squirmy kid). Sometimes we can’t keep up with reapplying when kids are active or in and out of the water. Sometimes we get caught off guard by a really sunny day — and sometimes we just forget to bring sunscreen on an outing.

Here’s what you should do if your child gets sunburned.

Get them out of the sun. This sounds obvious, but it’s worth stating. If your child is getting sunburned, either find or make some shade, or go indoors. Staying out in the sun is likely to make things worse (and a sunburn may be a sign of too much time in the sun), which can put kids at risk of heat exhaustion or even heat stroke.

Use cool water. A cool bath or shower can soothe sunburn, as can a cool, damp towel or cloth (which may be your best bet on the way home from the beach). Do it throughout the day if it helps.

Use products that contain aloe vera. This is widely available in lotions and gels (you can scoop your own gel out of aloe vera leaves), and can be very soothing to sunburned skin. Don’t use anything that contains petroleum, as it can trap heat inside the skin. And while it may be tempting to use products that contain benzocaine or lidocaine, as they are marketed to help pain from cuts and scratches, don’t — they can irritate sunburns.

Make sure your child stays hydrated. Burned skin doesn’t keep fluid inside as well, so anyone with a burn needs to drink more than usual. Fill a water bottle, and have your child drink from it frequently.

Consider using ibuprofen. It can help with pain and swelling. If you’re not sure of your child’s dosage, call your doctor.

Leave blisters be. If there are blisters, that means that the burn is a second-degree burn, which is more serious. Don’t pop them, just leave them alone.

Protect sunburned skin by dressing your child in lightweight, tightly woven clothing that blocks the sun. It’s not a bad idea, if possible, to stay out of the sun for a bit, especially after a bad sunburn. Do some fun indoor activities instead.

If your child has cramping, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or sleepiness that doesn’t get better once you get them inside and cooled off, call your doctor right away. Hopefully this won’t happen, but heat can be dangerous.

Along with being careful about outside activities, the best way to prevent sunburn is to choose and use sunscreen wisely. Even though the occasional sunburn is inevitable and manageable, the skin damage from sunburns can increase the risk of skin cancer. So next time, be extra careful.


  1. Kin

    Can a child have seizure n liver damage n Brain damage from heat stroke

  2. Rachel Ellis

    The best sunburn healer is baking soda (1/2 to a cup or more) dissolved in hot water, then add ice to cool it down. Soak small towels with this and apply to sunburned areas, changing the towels about every minute or less. the soaked towels will be hot as it is drawing out the burn. After 30 minutes of this the burn will be gone and the peeling of the skin will be minimized as the burn is removed before the skin becomes singed. After a severe sunburn, I soaked in a bathtub of baking soda water, laying soaked towels on areas not submerged, evening and the next morning. The sunburn was barely tender to the touch and hardly any peeling occurred.

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