09 June 2003

Sunburn now, cancer later

Most parents wouldn't dream of handing their children a dangerous toy or feeding them tainted food. Yet, many otherwise loving and caring parents put their kid's lives at risk simply by sending them outdoors to play in the summer sun.

Most parents wouldn't dream of handing their children a dangerous toy or feeding them tainted food. Yet, many otherwise loving and caring parents put their kid's lives at risk simply by sending them outdoors to play in the summer sun.

The reason is skin cancer. And experts say that if you let your children spend even a short amount of time outside without protection from the sun, you're increasing their risks of this disease by a generous proportion.

"Anytime you get a sunburn, at any age, your risk of skin cancer goes up. But get that burn before the age of 18, and your risks go up dramatically - and the more times a child experiences sunburn or even sun damage caused by a tan, the greater their future risk of skin cancer," says Dr Darrell Rigel, a dermatologist from New York University Medical Center.

Immune system not fully developed
One reason, Rigel says, is the cancer-causing effects of the sun are cumulative. Simply put, the earlier that sun damage to the skin starts - which can happen with a tan as well as a burn - the more likely your child is to reach the level of cellular damage that translates into skin cancer.

But that's not the only reason children need to be protected from the sun. Because a child's immune system is not fully developed, Rigel says, they don't have the kind of biochemical defense mechanism that normally helps an adult's body catch at least some of the cells damaged by the sun and repair them before cancer has a chance to develop.

"As a result, over time those cells damaged in childhood become an adult skin cancer," Rigel says.

"Rb pathway" can help stop tumours
Earlier this year, research conducted at Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston was even more specific in pinpointing the dangers to children. According to Dr Lynda Chin, it may all come down to the recently discovered Rb pathway - a series of biochemical signals that can sense when damage occurs in a skin cell and immediately shut down its ability to duplicate itself.

"In this way, the Rb pathway can help stop tumours from forming," says Chin, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School.

However, the more sun exposure you have, particularly at a young age, the more likely it is the Rb pathway will become damaged and no long able to sense when a skin cell is in trouble.

Essentially, "the suns rays inactivate the built-in protection, allowing melanoma to grow," Chin says.

Sun exposure is primary cause
Indeed, the American Academy of Dermatology confirms that nearly two-thirds of all melanoma skin cancers are related to sun exposure, and up to 80 percent of that exposure usually occurs during childhood.

One way to protect your children is to make certain they wear a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, and to make sure they use the product correctly.

"This means using enough sunscreen to cover all exposed areas of the body, and putting it on at least 30 minutes before going outside," says Dr Ted Daly, a dermatologist at Nassau University Medical Center in New York.

"Sometimes, we recommend a number 30 sunscreen because people generally put on less than they should," Daly says. So, even if you're stingy with your application of SPF 30, you'll still get the benefits of SPF 15 wherever the sunscreen is applied.

Parents should protect children from sunburn
Daly also reminds parents to make certain children reapply sunscreen after bathing, or after participating in any activity that can cause them to sweat off the protection.

Although parents are often present when a young child goes outdoors, experts suggest this may not be the case as the child grows older. No longer under your watchful eye, skipping a sunscreen can be far too easy - particularly at sporting events. The solution: Teach your children well, beginning as early as possible, about the need for sunscreen.

"It's not enough to just put the sunscreen on your child, you have to also teach them about sun protection so, as they get a little older, they'll remember to keep on using it - even when you're not around to remind them," Daly says.

Other measures should be taken
Although sunscreen can go a long way in protecting your child, experts from the American Academy of Dermatology say it won't do the whole job. Both Daly and Rigel urge parents to enlist at least one other form of protection for their children, including hats, sunglasses and T-shirts, particularly at the beach.

Also, remember that sunburns can happen in the shade of a beach umbrella, or even on a cloudy day. So keep a keen eye on any colour changes in your children's skin while they're outdoors.

"It can take up to 12 hours for a sunburn to become apparent, so a child that looks a little pink in the afternoon might end up with a red sunburn by the next morning," Rigel says. So, he says, get them indoors the minute you see a change in skin colour. - (HealthScout News)

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A-Z of Melanoma
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