Monday Medical: Sun safety for kids
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Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a five-part series on skin cancer.
Whether you’re slathering sunscreen on your toddler before hitting the pool or encouraging your teen to wear a hat to a sports game, it probably won’t be convenient. But it is important.
Melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, doesn’t only affect adults; it also affects children. Though pediatric melanoma is rare, the disease is on the rise in the U.S., particularly among teenagers.
“We need to teach kids at different stages about sun protection and putting it into daily routines,” said Dr. Maryann Wall, who is board certified in otolaryngology, head and neck surgery and facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. “That will significantly reduce the incidence of skin cancers they may acquire as both children and as adults.”
There are three types of pediatric melanoma: conventional melanoma; spitzoid melanoma, which is nodular, round and uniform in color; and congenital melanoma, or birthmarks that turn into melanoma.
Children at higher risk for melanoma include those who have fair skin, light hair, freckles, a family history of melanoma, a history of severe sunburns, a lot of moles and certain health conditions.
It’s important to get to know your child’s skin: Be familiar with their moles and recognize if something changes. A melanoma on a child may be white or yellow, it may be a bump that itches or bleeds or it may just be the one odd-looking mole.
“The vast majority of melanoma cases are identified by parents bringing up concerns to their primary care physician,” Wall said. “Parents don’t have to be fellowship trained in dermatologic surgery. If they notice something odd, they just need to discuss that with their physician.”
The good news is that most melanomas are diagnosed early and are curable.
Following, Wall shares steps parents can take to help children of any age keep their skin safe.
• Infants younger than 6 months — Avoid the sun and don’t use sunscreen. When babies are outside, their sensitive skin should be completely covered — use a good hat, baby sunglasses, full-length sleeves and leggings and a stroller with a canopy.
• Toddlers and children — “I’d love to say avoid the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but that’s not realistic,” Wall said. “We have to rely on other things.”
That means using sunscreen (broad spectrum, SPF 30 to 50, applied liberally and often) and sun protective clothing, which now often looks so cute your kids won’t even know their skin is protected.
• Teenagers — This group may be the most challenging when it comes to keeping skin safe from sun.
“Teens have a strong peer pressure to conform,” Wall said. “Teens also have this misconception that a tan is a sign of health and that it’s more flattering and hides skin imperfections, like acne and cellulite.”
While it’d be best if people embraced the skin they have, Wall knows that’s not necessarily going to happen. So, she recommends encouraging teenagers to use sunscreen and sun-protective clothing — especially teens on acne medication that causes skin to be more sensitive to sun — and to turn to self-tanners when they want a healthy glow.
Tanning beds should never be an option.
“People don’t realize that in some tanning beds, you can be getting 10 to 15 times the amount of ultraviolet radiation you would get on the beach at a noon,” Wall said. “It significantly increases your risk for melanoma.”
With children of any age, there’s one more thing parents can do: Model good sun safety behavior themselves.
“Parents need to show that it’s part of a daily routine,” Wall said. “You wouldn’t leave the house without brushing your teeth. You wouldn’t go to school in your pajamas. So parents need to show, ‘I’m not leaving the house without my sunscreen.’”
Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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