Toddler sunburn triage

Q: What's the best way to treat a toddler’s sunburn? Ouch!

A: Sunburns are especially unpleasant for toddlers because they don’t understand the cause of the pain. 

Prevention, of course, is really the most important step to take. Sun blocks with an SPF of 30 or higher are important to use frequently, even on cloudy days if your child is going to be outside.

If your toddler does suffer a sunburn, the care required really depends on the severity. 

Mildly pink skin, accompanied by very few symptoms, shouldn’t require treatment.

When the skin turns a deeper red, however, use of an aloe product may be soothing and helpful, along with ibuprofen or acetaminophen to dull the pain, which is typically worse the day after sun exposure.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you can also: 

• Put a cold, damp towel on the skin for 10 or 15 minutes a few times a day.

• Offer frequent cool baths or showers to help relieve the pain. Pat the skin dry and apply a moisturizer to trap the water in the skin, which will help ease the dryness.

• Offer extra water to encourage adequate hydration. 

• Avoid lotions or creams that contain petroleum, benzocaine or lidocaine.

Any product that contains a topical anesthetic should be avoided due to the possibility of a sensitivity to that product in the future.

A second-degree sunburn — one in which blisters form on the exposed skin — is a more serious medical condition. This should result in a visit — at least a call — to your child’s clinic. The level of pain can be very high and there’s a risk of a secondary infection. 

In any situation, keeping a sunburned toddler out of the sun for the next few days will help to keep him or her more comfortable. Learn more about sunscreens at ewg.org/sunscreen.


Dr. Peter Dehnel is a board-certified pediatrician and medical director with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. Send questions to drdehnel@mnparent.com. This column is intended to provide general information only and not medical advice. Contact your health care provider with questions about your child.