Sunburn vs. sun poisoning: What’s the difference?

Kids spend a good part of their day playing outside in the summer. But before they go outside, it’s important to protect them from the harmful effects of overexposure to the sun.

Do you know the difference between sunburn and sun poisoning?

The symptoms of sunburn may include redness, swelling of the skin, pain, blisters and peeling skin days after the burn. If your child gets sunburn, give him or her a cool bath or place cool washcloths on the sunburned area. You also can give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Apply a moisturizer, like aloe or hydrocortisone cream to the sunburned skin. If the skin blisters, don’t break them open, because they can get infected. It’s also a good idea to keep your child out of the sun until the burn is healed.

Sun poisoning or heat exhaustion refers to the effects of too much sun. Your child may feel sick to his or her stomach, breathe quickly, be very tired or have a headache. If your child shows signs of sun poisoning or heat exhaustion:

  • Get him or her out of the heat immediately.
  • Make sure he or she drinks plenty of water or a beverage with electrolytes, like Gatorade®.
  • Apply cool compresses to your child’s skin.

Heat exhaustion isn’t life threatening. Most kids feel better after rest, fluids and cooling down. If your child shows signs of confusion, disorientation, or has severe nausea and vomiting, get medical help quickly.

It’s important to develop good habits early. Protect your child’s skin before exposure to the sun with sunscreen. We recommend choosing a broad-spectrum (label will say UVA/UVB), water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors and reapply often.  Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the rays are the strongest. It’s a good idea to have children play in the shade and wear protective clothing and hats. Make it a part of the routine of going outside. It is never too late to protect your child from the sun.

- Valerie Lyon, MD, and Karen Monreal, RN, Dermatology Clinic, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin offers one of the largest pediatric dermatology practices in the country. We see patients in Milwaukee and at our specialty clinic in Pewaukee, Wis.


Sunburn vs. sun poisoning: What’s the difference? — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the explaining the difference. I never knew the difference before now. Good tips too.