Alarming number of infants, children and teens presenting at Victorian hospital emergency departments with sunburn

Friday 24 January, 2020

Victorians are being reminded to protect themselves and their families this long weekend as data shows children and teenagers accounted for more than half the number of emergency hospital presentations for sunburn last summer.

A recent report* citing Victorian emergency department presentations for sunburn during summer 2018-19 shows one in two (53%) hospital presentations were children and adolescents aged 0-19 years of age. Of the total 296 sunburn presentations reported, one in three (32%) were adolescents aged 10-19 years, while an alarming one in five (21%) were children under nine years of age.

The report showed that the financial year 2018-19 had the second highest number of emergency department hospital presentations since 2004, and the highest on record for December.

Head of SunSmart, Heather Walker, said it was shocking to see such high numbers of young people getting burnt badly enough to warrant hospital treatment.

“Seeing the number of children and adolescents presenting with sunburn in particular is alarming considering nearly all cases of sunburn could be avoided with good sun protection.

“We know that sun exposure in the first 20 years of life determines to a substantial degree a person’s lifetime potential for skin cancer. While sunburn will heal and fade, over time, the UV damage adds up to increase the chances of skin cancer. Childhood and adolescence are critical periods to be SunSmart for that reason,” Ms Walker said.

Director of the Victorian Melanoma Service, Associate Professor Victoria Mar, said a sunburn at any age is not good but it’s even worse for children.

“A bad sunburn for a child can be quite dangerous because children are more likely to suffer from related conditions such as heat stroke as they can’t regulate their body temperature as well as adults. Parents need to remember their child’s skin isn’t as well equipped as their own to deal with the extreme UV we see here in Australia so sun protection is critical.”

“In severe sunburn cases patients may present with dehydration, blistering, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Other than minimise the discomfort and get them hydrated we just have to wait for the body to heal itself,” Assoc Prof Mar said.

Assoc Prof Mar noted there is very little that can be done to repair the long-term damage to skin cells once sunburn has occurred, and the best thing to do is avoid getting sunburnt in the first place. 

Ms Walker said with the long weekend approaching and the UV predicted to be high to extreme, SunSmart is urging Victorians and their families to enjoy time outdoors, but do so with good sun protection.

“Victorians know how to be SunSmart. They just need to be vigilant about putting it into practice anytime they’re outside when the UV is above 3. And it’s important to remember the sun won’t discriminate between a backyard BBQ, the park or beach over the long weekend.” Ms Walker said.

Ms Walker encouraged Victorians to use the five forms of sun protection but cautioned against relying on sunscreen alone.

“Sunscreen is not a suit of armour and should be considered the last line of defence after clothing, a broad brimmed hat, sunglasses and shade.” Ms Walker said.

SunSmart recommends Victorians protect their skin in five ways:

  • Slip on loose protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
  • Slop on SPF30 or higher, broad spectrum, water resistant sunscreen 20 minutes before going outdoors. Reapply every two hours; particularly when kids are playing in the water. Correct application of sunscreen includes a full teaspoon for each limb, the face, neck and ears, back and front of the body – seven teaspoons in total.
  • Slap on a broadbrim, bucket or legionnaires style hat that covers the face, neck and ears.
  • Seek shade wherever possible outside; particularly in the middle of the day when the UV is highest. For infants and young children, prolonged periods of sun exposure should be avoided all together.
  • Slide on close fitting, wrap-around sunglasses that cover as much of the eye area as possible and that meet the Australian Standards.

Ms Walker noted the overcast conditions and the impact of the bushfire smoke on UV may be causing Victorians to overlook the need for sun protection. She encouraged Victorians to remember January is the height of summer and skin can get burnt in as little as 11 minutes when the UV is extreme.

For more information and tips on protecting your skin visit The free SunSmart app which provides UV alerts and reminders for sunscreen application can be downloaded on the App store and Google Play.

*About the Victorian Emergency Minimum Dataset

Data on presentations to Victorian emergency departments due to sunburn (ICD category L55) were sourced from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Victorian Emergency Minimum Dataset (VEMD) and provided to SunSmart Victoria via the Victorian Agency for Health Information (VAHI). Presentation data were supplied from the 2004-05 through to the 2018-19 financial years. Only public hospital campuses that fall within the national definition of an emergency department report to the VEMD as part of the Victorian Health Information Reporting System. De-identified data were provided for financial year, month, age group, sex, National Weighted Activity Unit, and urgency related group (triage and admission status).

Emergency department presentations for a principal presentation of sunburn in Victoria in the summer of 2018-19

  Number of presentations % of all presentations
Male 165 56
Female 131 44
Age group    
0-9 years 62 21
10-19 years 95 32
20-29 years 65 22
30-39 years 24 8
40-49 years 27 9
50-59 years 15 5
60-69 years 4 1
70 years and older 4 1
Urgency status    
Emergency (triage category 2) 7 2
Urgent (triage category 3) 69 23
Semi-urgent (triage category 4) 160 54
Non-urgent (triage category 5) 60 20
Admission status    
Not admitted (treated in emergency department) 270 91
Admitted 16 5
Did not wait (not treated) 10 3

Monthly emergency department presentations for a principal presentation of sunburn in 2018-19 

Month Number of presentations
July 2018 1
August 208 1
September 2018 5
October 2018 5
November 2018 14
December 2018 98
January 2019 165
February 2019 33
March 2019 6
April 2019 2
May 2019 0
June 2019 0

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