Why you need to apply sunscreen

It’s time to have fun in the sun, but know the risks

With the spring and summer months comes lots of fun – and lots of sun.

And while most parents jump at the chance to partake in outdoor activities with their children during the warmer seasons – especially after a long winter often spent mostly indoors – it’s important to take sun safety into consideration.

According to Jennifer Lavallee, APRN, who specializes in pediatrics at Merrimack Valley Pediatrics in Nashua, there are several basic things you can do to protect your family from the potentially harmful effects of the sun.

Avoid midday sun when the rays are most harmful, Lavallee said. Use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher and reapply every two hours and after sweating or swimming. Also, the use of protective clothing, hats and sunglasses are important sun protection measures. Find out what the current UV index is from the National Weather Service and plan your outdoor activities accordingly.

“The reason this is important is because of all the risk factors for skin cancer, sunburn is the most preventable,” Lavallee said. “Risk factors for skin cancer include having had sunburn early in life, as well as exposure to the sun during work and play, having fair skin, a family history of skin cancer, blonde or red hair, and blue or green eyes.”

And because May is National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month, now is a great time to educate yourself and your family about these and other risk factors for cancer. In June 2010 the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services pointed to skin cancer rates being particularly high in New Hampshire in recent years – especially for young women.

According to Lavallee, there are several possible explanations for this.

“Melanoma is a dangerous form of skin cancer, and the rates for this type of cancer have been increasing, particularly in young women,” she said. “New Hampshire has seen a dramatic increase in cases, more than the national average. This increase may partially be due to better reporting, but is also due to excessive environmental exposure to ultraviolet or UV radiation from the sun and indoor tanning equipment. In fact, the use of tanning beds and devices before the age of 30 increases the risk of melanoma by 75 percent.”

When it comes to preventing melanoma and other conditions associated with sun exposure, Ashley Brunelle, MD, a pediatric doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic in Concord, emphasized it is important to keep babies six months and younger out of direct sunlight. And for older children, parents should be a role model when it comes to sun safety.

“Set a good example,” Brunelle said. “You can be the best teacher by practicing sun protection yourself. Teach all members of your family how to protect their skin and eyes.”

It is especially important to educate yourself and your children about the importance of sun safety, Brunelle said, because children react much differently to sun and heat exposure than adults.

“Compared with adults, children's ability to tolerate the heat is very different,” she said. “Children have more body surface area than body weight, so when the outside temperature is higher than body temperature, children tend to gain heat faster than adults. Children adjust to the heat more slowly, so it will take longer for them to get used to summer temperatures and humidity than adults.”

So, even with all these precautions, what do you do if your child does get sunburned?

Lavallee recommends treating mild sunburns that are red, warm and painful with cool compresses and baths, acetaminophen for pain relief and increased fluids. You should call your child’s health-care provider if he or she has sunburn with blisters or associated symptoms of fever, chills, headache or a general feeling of illness.

And, as Brunelle pointed out, your child doesn’t actually have to be burned to be harmed by the sun. Other heat-related illnesses that do not necessarily result from sunburn, but can be very serious, include heat exhaustion, dehydration, heat cramps, and heatstroke, so it is important to be extra-vigilant when it comes to sun safety to prevent any and all adverse affects.

Fun in the sun should be just that – fun. But your children can still enjoy outdoor activities during the spring and summer while also keeping their skin safe from the damaging affects of the sun.

Julia K. Agresto is a Communications and Marketing Specialist for the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., and a freelance writer. She lives in Nashua with her fiance and their cat.

Categories: Mind and Body, Summer Safety