Playing outside with your kids is great way to spend time, get exercise, enjoy nature, and build lasting memories. However, it is important to be mindful of the amount of time your children spend in direct and indirect sunlight. Children’s skin is thinner and more sensitive than that of an adult. Therefore, they are more susceptible to many dangers the rays of the sun may hold
Possible Dangers of Sun Overexposure in Children
The sun’s rays are vital to all life on our planet, especially to that of our children. Spending time in the sun can be relaxing and reinvigorating. This is because its rays promote the release of the melatonin and oxytocin, hormones that encourage restful sleep and natural stabilization of moods.
Like most things that nature provides, the sun is not without its darker side. The sun’s UV rays are the primary cause of skin cancer in children under 18. Overexposure to the sun’s rays can cause serious medical conditions like:
UVB rays are not as prevalent as UVA, which are 80 percent more present in the Earth’s atmosphere. UVB do not penetrate the skin’s surface any deeper than the epidermis layer of the skin. They play a contributory role in both skin aging and the development of skin cancer. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn.
One of the most common skin conditions for sun overexposure are sunburns. Children’s skin is generally more sensitive than their adult counterparts thanks to being thinner and more delicate. This makes them more vulnerable to sunburns and their related symptoms. When the skin is exposed to UV radiation specialized cells within it called “melanocytes”
produce a pigment called melanin1. Melanin spreads out to the surrounding cells as a way of shielding the skin from excessive UV exposure. This effect causes the skin itself to darken in pigmentation or “tan.” When the skin cells absorb too much UV radiation, the body triggers an immune response to combat the cell damage. The cutaneous blood vessels dilate, and inflammatory cells flood the area, which produces the redness and pain sunburns are known for. The immune response can take up to six hours to initiate, therefor a parent might not see a sunburn until hours after the sun damage has been done. This affect is worse for children with fairer complexions as they typically release far less melanin. However, children of all skin types can suffer from sunburns if overexposed. In some severe cases of sun overexposure, children can even suffer second degree burns. This is commonly referred to as sun poisoning. Its symptoms can range from pain, redness, painful blisters, fever and chills.
Sun overexposure can cause a variety of harmful effects beyond damage to the skin cells via UV radiation. Under the sweltering rays of the sun, playing children’s skin will excrete sweat to cool their bodies down, sometimes profusely. This is the body’s natural defense against overheating. However, if the children don’t replenish their fluid level by drinking appropriate liquids (water), they can become dehydrated. Dehydration in children, particularly in hotter environments, is extremely common. Children’s increased metabolic rates, their larger surface area can cause them to sweat their body fluids away at an alarming rate2. Their accompanied symptoms can be mild to potentially life-threatening3.
Heat illnesses is a broad term to encompass conditions like heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. These heat related injuries are frequently accompanied with sun overexposure which causes dangerous levels of dehydration. People with cases of sun related heat illnesses often have a severe sunburn.
- Sun cramps, the mildest version, has symptoms of painful muscle cramps. Children with cramps can usually recoup rest in cool shaded place and replenish their fluids by drinking water or the like.
- Heat exhaustion has more severe symptoms like cool clammy skin, possible fever, irritability, fainting, cramps, increased sweating, and irritability. Heat exhaustion should be treated immediately as it could worsen. Get your child in a cool place, replenish their fluids, seek medical advice from your medical practitioner. Children may require emergency treatment that includes 3 (intravenous) fluids.
- Heat stroke is when the symptoms of heat exhaustion have become dangerously severe. Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition that can result in permanent physical or mental impairment, or even death. Symptoms include hot dry skin, no sweating (they are that dehydrated), fever, seizures, weakness, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. Children with heat stroke need emergent medical intervention that includes IV fluids and emergency cooling techniques.
Melanoma is the most dangerous of all the skin cancers. It is caused when ultraviolet light damages the skin cells, causing them to mutate into harmful cancer cells. Although it is the least common skin cancer in the general adult population, it is the most common kind of skin cancer children develop. Melanoma accounts for seven percent of the cancers diagnosed in children age fifteen to nineteen. Melanoma presents itself typically as one, or more, unusual-looking moles. Concerning moles are asymmetrical, have an irregular, exterior border and have varied colors throughout. They are larger than ¼ inch in diameter and evolve in size, shape, and color over time4. If any of these are found seek immediate medical care from a dermatologist.
Places Children Can Get Sun Overexposure
The most common cause of over-exposure for children is a day spent at the beach or swimming pool without adequate skin protection. However, it is important for parents to be mindful of the many other situations and activities in which children can get sun-damaged skin. Many parents build excellent routines around sun-screen and skin protection at the pool, while never considering the impact of UV index during other outside activities. Sun exposure can even occur during lengthy or frequent car rides.
It’s possible for children to get overexposure to the sun’s rays at the park, beach, or hike. However, there are other places where it’s possible for them to sun damage in some locations without their caregivers realizing it. Children’s skin can become over-exposure on cloudy days, in a variety of climates, and during the winter (especially after it snows). Even three feet of water, the impact of harmful rays can reach a child’s vulnerable skin surfaces. For a comprehensive list of areas where your children can be vulnerable to sun damage we suggest reading our article: Everyday Ways You are Soaking up Damaging UV Rays
Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Child From Overexposure to the Sun
To ensure that your child has a fun, outdoor experience without sun damage to their skin, there are simple steps that their caregivers can take to keep them safe:
- Caregivers should familiarize themselves with their child’s skin type. This way they can familiarize themselves with each child’s unique level of risk for sun damage.
- Avoid outdoor activities during the hottest parts of the day. The sun’s UV index generally peaks between the hours of 10am and 2pm. During this timeframe, sun damage occurs much more quickly.
- Use a minimal of SPF 30 with Broad Spectrum coverage on all exposed skin. Then re-apply it every 1 to 2 hours of outdoor activity, especially after swimming.
- Pay careful attention to protection of skin areas that are often forgotten such as lips, ears and scalp.
- Consider hats and clothing with SPF to minimize direct sun exposure.
Equip children and parents with BurŪV Fitness Tracker for Your Skin, a personal UV sun monitoring Apple Watch wristband. This wearable, digital device is a personal UV sun monitor that gives real time feedback on sun exposure. BurŪV takes into account the UV index of the wearer’s location, and the wearer’s skin type. With this information presented it provides alerts to reapply sunscreen or seek shade.
For more even more tips to avoid being sunburn check out our article: Top 10 Sun Smart Tips
Find Out What the UV Index is in Your Area
The EPA sponsors a helpful tool below that can provide your with information about the UV index in your area. Enter your location information below (i.e., zip code, city, state), then click the green search icon. You will be redirected to the EPA’s web site where the UV index information for your area will be displayed for you.
Use UV index information to help you plan for how much sun protection you need based on your skin type. If you don’t know what your skin type is, click here to learn more.