Here comes the sun

Sunburns, bug bites, dehydration – all are common pitfalls that can quickly derail your family’s summertime fun. As you gear up for lazy days by the pool and long walks in the woods, keep these health and safety tips in mind.

Full coverage

Choosing a high-SPF sunscreen is the best way to protect your kids from the damaging effects of the sun…right?

“Sunscreen is important, but is actually my second line of defense in sun protection,” says Dr. Tracy Funk, a pediatric dermatologist at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “Sun-protective clothing is foolproof and doesn’t wear off over time, unlike sunscreen.”

Dr. Funk recommends clothes with UPF (UV protection provided by fabric) ratings – including rash guards or swim shirts for water activities – but regular clothing might work in a pinch.

“Hold up clothing to a light,” she explains. “If it has a tight weave and not a lot of light goes through, then it’s got pretty good sun protection.”

Consider a sunshade over outdoor play areas, and don’t forget hats and sunglasses.

“It can be really difficult to keep these on kids,” admits Dr. Funk, “but just keep trying. Straps are useful.”

Of course, sunscreen is still essential for protecting the face and other exposed skin. Regardless of SPF, you still have to reapply it every 1.5 to 2 hours. In fact, spending more on high-SPF sunscreen is generally a waste.

“SPF 50 is almost as effective as SPF 100,” says Dr. Funk. “What’s more important is that the sunscreen is broad spectrum, which means it protects against UVA and UVB light.”

If your kids will be swimming or playing in water, look for “very water resistant” varieties, which will last through 80 minutes of water activities. Recently, rumors have circulated about the potentially harmful effects of chemical UV filters, such as oxybenzone.

“I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” says Dr. Funk. “All the sunscreens that are available are safe and effective.”

The mineral sunscreens, which contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are great options for people that have concerns about sunscreen safety. Sunscreens to avoid are the spray-on variety, which often are inadequately applied and are easy to accidentally inhale. But won’t sunscreen lead to low vitamin D? In short, no. People get vitamin D from their diet as well. More importantly, sun damage has a cumulative effect, which means the exposure your kids get now will affect them in adulthood.

“Sunlight is a powerful carcinogen, and exposure can lead to skin cancer,” Dr. Funk says. “It’s easy to supplement the diet with vitamin D if necessary.”

Itchy and scratchy: caring for sunburns and bug bites

Sunburns can surprise even the most vigilant parents, and according to Dr. Funk, sunburned kids should stay out of the sun until any redness is gone. In the meantime, a lukewarm bath can offer some relief, as can ibuprofen and topical hydrocortisone cream.

Usually, though, it’s bug bites that have us begging for itch relief. What’s the best way to keep mosquitos from treating our kids like an all-you-can-eat buffet?

“DEET is the most effective insect repellent,” says Dr. Funk. “It has been shown to be safe even for kids as young as 2 months of age.”

Products with 10-30 percent DEET are plenty effective, and last for between 2-5 hours. Dr. Funk recommends repellents with DEET if you’re in an area with insect-transmitted disease. There are several more natural insect repellents on the market, and these may be reasonable options when insect-related diseases are not a concern.

If you’re tempted to get one of those bug repellent/sunscreen combo products, resist. Sunscreen must be applied every two hours, which would be way too much repellent.

Beat the heat: Staying hydrated

Kids are experts at playing outside. Staying hydrated? Not so much.

“Pay attention when it’s hot out,” says Dr. Sarah Green, a pediatrician at OHSU Doernbecher. “Make sure your kids are taking breaks to drink water.”

With some kids, though, that’s easier said than done. “Having their own water bottle with special straw can be helpful,” says Dr. Green. “Putting ice in it can be appealing.”

If all else fails, try DIY juice popsicles. (At that point, juice is preferable to nothing.)

When it’s really hot out, Dr. Green recommends seeking shade and avoiding the outdoors during peak sun hours.

“One dangerous situation can be sports practices, when kids don’t feel well and are asked to perform,” she warns.

Signs of dehydration include:

  • dry, cracked lips
  • decreased urine
  • darker urine
  • low levels of sweat despite the heat

For babies, watch out for:

  • unusually dry diapers
  • fewer wet diapers in a day

If you see any of these signs, it’s time to get out of the sun, get in a cooler spot and work on drinking fluids, according to Dr. Green. If your kid seems disoriented, sleepy, confused or nauseated, it could mean a dangerous rise in core temperature, which warrants a trip to the ER.

Learn more: What parents and caregivers should know about covering strollers.

“While we want to keep babies out of the sun, be careful about covering strollers as it can make the baby even warmer,” Dr. Green says.

Window and water safety

When temperatures rise, our first instinct is to open the windows, fill up the kiddie pool and hope for a little relief. But if any windows are easily accessible to kids, keep them closed and locked.

“A screen doesn’t count as a window,” says Dr. Green, a pediatrician at OHSU Doernbecher. “They’re not secure and won’t hold the weight of a child or baby.”

To learn more about keeping your child safe in the summer months, talk to your child’s pediatrician, visit the OHSU Doernbecher Tom Sargent Safety Center or call OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital at (503) 346-0640.

Also be sure to block access to any windows with air conditioners, which are usually just held in place by the window itself.

Water, of course, offers hidden dangers too.

“Little ones are curious about water and like to get in it,” says Dr. Green. “As you travel to new places, be aware of where there are pools, hot tubs and bodies of water. Keep their lifejackets on, even if they’re just sitting on the edge of a pool. You can’t overdo water safety.”


This article was written by Danielle Centoni and originally appeared in the Portland Monthly 2018 Kids’ Health Annual magazine.