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Skin cancer and your children: How to spot the signs

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Being responsible for the health of your child's skin can be a daunting prospect – especially when their skin is more vulnerable to the sun's UV rays than yours! But protecting your child from skin cancer doesn't have to be complicated; there are some simple steps that can significantly reduce your child's chances of developing skin cancer.

Here, we'll look at whether or not children can get skin cancer, how to spot the signs, and how to prevent skin cancer in children.

Keep reading to learn whether or not kids can get skin cancers.

Can kids get skin cancer?

It is normal for children to have some moles and freckles developing before and during puberty, even in areas that are not exposed to the sun. However, children rarely develop skin cancers. Full-body checks are usually not recommended until their early 20's.

Tell-tale signs of skin cancer in children

Tell-tale signs of melanoma or malignant moles are those which are tender, itch, don't heal properly and bleed, or one that is noticeably different in appearance from your child's other moles. Again, skin cancer in children is extremely rare but it never hurts to talk to your doctor about skin checks for your child.

Obviously, if there is a concerning lesion that is changing or growing out of proportion to the growth of the child, this needs to be checked by a doctor or at a skin cancer clinic. The earlier an expert can diagnose skin cancer, the easier it will be to treat.

How to check your kid's body for skin cancer

Remember that regular skin cancer checks for you and your children are important to monitor any changes to their skin. Ask your doctor if you're unsure of how to perform these checks.

Keep in mind the general rule of ABCDE for skin checks, as it is an easy method to remember what to look out for. The ABCDE for checking your children's skin.

  1. Asymmetry: In other words, the mole is not symmetrical on either side; if it were to be cut in half; both halves would not be identical.
  2. Border: The border of the mole is notched, scalloped, uneven or blurry.
  3. Colour: The mole is an unusual colour and is not all the same shade. Benign moles are usually one hue of brown. A malignant mole could be multiple colours, such as brown, black, blue red and/or white.
  4. Diameter: A cancerous mole will typically be larger than a benign one. Any mole larger than 6mm in diameter should be treated as suspicious.
  5. Elevation: Is the surface flat or raised? If it's raised it's time to see a doctor.

Also, keep an eye out for any lesion that's shiny or pearly or has small blood vessels in it. Though basal cell carcinoma is very unlikely in children, skin cancer signs are something parents need to be aware of.

How to protect your child from skin cancer

There are a few good rules of thumb for keeping your child safe from sun damage. Although they may not be at risk for skin cancer now, it's important to keep their skin healthy and teach them good sun safety habits for the future.

Here are the top ways to keep your kids' skin safe in the sun:

  1. Avoid direct sun exposure.
  2. Apply sunscreen.
  3. Dress them in protective clothing.

Keep reading to learn more about each of these prevention methods.

1. Avoid direct sun exposure

Another easy and effective way of protecting your child's skin is by avoiding direct sun exposure.

If you're spending a day at the beach, remember to pack an umbrella; if you're having a picnic, try to sit under a tree in the shade. It's also a good idea to head inside during the hottest part of the day – when the UV ray index is at its peak (between 11am and 2pm).

2. Apply sunscreen

The easiest and most effective way to protect your kid's skin from the sun is to “slip, slop, slap" on sunscreen. Though paediatric melanomas are very rare, sunscreen will help prevent sunburn and other risk factors of too much sun exposure.

It is important to slop on SPF 30+ sunscreen to your child's skin at least 20 minutes before they head outside. Remember to reapply sunscreen every two hours and check you've covered all of their exposed skin.

3. Dress them in sun protective clothing

Make sure children wear sun protective clothing, such as long-sleeved rash vest or "rashie" as they offer very effective protection for the top half of their body. Remember to cover up the bottom half of their body too. 

As a rule of thumb, darker tones of clothing will provide a greater level of skin protection than lighter colours.

And don't forget to get them to slap on a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses!

Skin risk factors to consider for babies, kids, and teens

Although most children will never be at risk for developing skin cancer early on in their lives, there are a few risk factors to be aware of during youth. These risk factors are important to look out for and address so that your child grows up to be a sun safe adult.

Childhood sunburns

Babies and children are at considerable risk of sunburn because their skin is very fragile. The risk of developing skin cancer later in life is greatly increased if they experience sunburns from birth to 15 years of age. Severe sunburns can damage nearby tissue, which can increase the future likelihood of skin cancer. It is important to minimise children's exposure to the sun, especially during this time of their lives.

Childhood is a crucial time to establish and maintain appropriate and long-term sun safe behaviours such as sun avoidance, protective clothing and sunscreen use.

Family history

The risk of melanoma is higher in people with a family history of skin cancer, with roughly 10% of cases connected to a family history. This can be due to a number of factors including similar lifestyle choices that involve more sun exposure, genetic traits such as light skin, blue or green eyes and fair hair. 

Malignant melanoma is the most common type of skin cancer in children, however, it is still rare. Squamous cell cancers and Basal cell carcinoma are both more common in adults, but the seeds of good sun safety practices are planted young, so what you teach your kids now could save their life later on.

Hair colour and skin tone

People with light skin and either blond or red hair are at higher risk of skin issues. People of all skin types can still develop skin cancer, so both dark-skinned and fair-skinned people should practice good sun safety. Wearing adequate clothing, using 30+ sunscreen and minimising sun exposure are all great ways to stay safe in the sun.

Moles and other skin mark types

More often than not, an odd mark won't be cancer and will be something harmless like a normal mole or dead skin. However, it's always better safe than sorry, and a simple skin check is a quick, easy way to provide peace of mind.

Though very rare in children, melanoma can occur at a young age and it's worth having any atypical moles checked. Keep an eye out for moles that are asymmetrical, growing in size, is an odd colour or are changing in any way. Any sensitivity, pain, itchiness, or bleeding in the mole or nearby skin is something your child's doctor should check. Also look out for any rough or scaly bumps, red or brown patches, scaly patches or any sores that aren't healing.

Your surrounding climate

There's no getting around the fact Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. This can be attributed to our climate, the high UV levels that come from being so close to the equator, and the high amount of light-skinned people who make up the population. Fair skin just wasn't designed for Australia's harsh environment; however, you can still enjoy this beautiful country with your family, provided you take the right steps.

Teaching your kids good sun protection habits now will set them up for a lifetime of good skin health.

Overall health

Your body's immune defence plays a role in fighting skin cancer, so anyone with a compromised immune system is immediately more vulnerable to any type of skin cancer. Reasons for a weaker immune system can be because of illness, medication, radiation therapy or major surgery like an organ transplant.

If your child has immune system deficiencies, you do need to be more cautious with any health issues. It's vital to practice good sun protection habits and to visit your child's healthcare provider if you are concerned they may have any type of skin cancer.

Next steps for addressing children's skin concerns

Remember, even melanoma is a very treatable cancer if caught early, so if you have any concerns or have a family history of skin cancer, play it safe by booking a skin check for your family. At Sun Doctors, we can answer all your questions from how is skin cancer diagnosed to how is skin cancer treated.

If you're concerned about your child's risk of skin cancer or for more tips on protecting them from UV exposure, head online to www.sundoctors.com.au, or call 13SKIN (137546) today.

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