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Summer Health and Safety Tips

Contributors Margaret Threadgill, MD, and Alexy Arauz Boudreau, MD, MPH
10 minute read
A mother and daughter romping at the beach, with the little girl riding on her mother's back.

Summer is a time for kids to splash, play, and experience nature. But parents know it’s not all fun and games. From sunburns to bug bites, summer may bring some challenges.

“Things like sun safety are important during summer months,” says Margaret Threadgill, MD, a Mass General Brigham pediatrician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “But parents also need to stay aware of serious risks, such as dehydration, drowning, and Lyme disease.”

With the right precautions in place, you can keep your kids safe and healthy this summer. Here are some tips from Dr. Threadgill and Alexy Arauz Boudreau, MD, MPH, a Mass General for Children pediatrician, to help you enjoy the sun and fun, with less worry.

Pool safety and drowning prevention

Pools, beaches, lakes, and rivers present a potential hazard, especially for small children who aren’t yet strong swimmers, but also for kids and teens at all levels of swimming.

Drowning prevention is all about paying attention. “When you’re in charge of watching kids at a pool, it’s essential to give them your full attention,” says Dr. Threadgill. “That means you’re not reading or distracted with your phone. To make it easier to give it 100% focus, switch off 15 to 30-minute shifts with another adult so you can take breaks.”

When you’re around any body of water, set up guidelines with children. Make sure your kids know they’re not allowed to get into the water without telling an adult. And if you’re boating, kids should always wear life vests.

With your teens, make sure you have discussed swimming with a buddy, cliff and waterhole jumping, and never swimming under the influence of any substance including prescription drugs that make you sleepy or marijuana in any form.

Summer sun safety tips

When you’re at the pool or beach, water safety isn’t your only concern. Sun safety is also important. “We know a lot of adult skin cancers may trace back to bad childhood sunburns,” says Dr. Threadgill.

She recommends liberal applications of sunscreen, using mineral sunscreen with SPF 35 or higher for kids, if possible, when your kids are in the sun. Put it on before going outside and reapply it at least every 2 hours. “More often, if the kids are sweating or in the water,” she advises.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using SPF 30 or higher on children and applying it to all skin that’s not covered by clothing. If you’re not sure how much sunscreen to use or how often to use it, Dr. Threadgill suggests reading the directions on the bottle.

“Protective clothing is great, too,” she says. “You can buy clothing with sun protection built in.” Rash guards with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor), which is similar to SPF (sun protection factor), but for clothing, will protect your kids’ arms, shoulders, and torsos. Over the years these can wear out, so watch carefully with hand-me-downs. “And don’t forget about hats and sunglasses.” Model the use of sunglasses and hats, as kids more naturally do what they see!

If your child does get a sunburn, you can use aloe vera or a light moisturizer for sensitive skin. But Dr. Threadgill cautions against using ointments or anything oily, which can trap heat against the skin and make the burn worse.

Never leave a kid unattended in a parked car. Ten minutes in a car on an 80-degree day is long enough to cause heatstroke. On hotter days, heatstroke can happen even faster.

Margaret Threadgill, MD

Heat safety and hydration

On hot days, kids can get so caught up in playing they don’t realize they’re overheating.

If it’s 85 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, or if it’s warm with very high humidity, Dr. Threadgill advises bringing kids inside every 30 minutes. “Give them breaks to cool off and have them drink water each time. Also encourage them to drink lots of water while they are playing.”

If you’re taking a road trip, make sure kids are protected from the sun in the car. Direct sunlight through car windows can cause overheating and even sunburn. Use window shades in the car if possible. “And never leave a kid unattended in a parked car,” says Dr. Threadgill. “Ten minutes in a car on an 80-degree day is long enough to cause heatstroke. On hotter days, heatstroke can happen even faster.”

Encourage kids to drink water throughout the day, even before they are thirsty, as thirst is the body’s reminder that one is already getting behind on liquids.

Bug bite prevention and treatment

Time outside often comes with unwanted buzzing pests. “The peak times for mosquitoes are typically at dawn and dusk,” says Dr. Threadgill. “Avoid going outdoors at those times, if possible.”

If you’re out among the mosquitoes, she recommends using insect repellent, clothes coated in permethrin, or both. Permethrin is an insect repellent that you can spray on clothing. You can also buy clothes that are pretreated with it.

Here are some tips for using insect repellent on kids:

  • Use a repellent with no more than 30% DEET. “It’s safe to use on children as young as 2 months old,” says Dr. Threadgill.

  • Use a pump spray instead of an aerosol. Using a pump helps avoid accidentally getting bug spray in your kids’ eyes, mouths, and noses. Pump it onto your hands and spread it on your child’s skin.

  • Avoid putting repellent on very young children’s hands. They may put their hands in their mouths.

Children can have strong reactions to mosquito bites. The bites may be very red, swollen, and itchy. “The bites may swell to over an inch in diameter or larger,” says Dr. Threadgill. “Some kids can even run a low fever.”

In many cases, you can care for bug and insect bites at home. For itchy bites, she recommends hydrocortisone cream or Benadryl® cream. If the bites are very swollen, a child dose of oral Benadryl can help.

Try to keep your kids from scratching too much. You can put Band-Aids® over the bites, if needed. If they do scratch, check for signs of infection such as painful, red sores that may have pus. If you have any concern for infection, call your primary care doctor.

Lyme disease prevention

Mosquito bites are annoying, but ticks present a different threat: Lyme disease. A tick bite can transmit the disease-causing bacterium to your child. Untreated Lyme disease in kids can develop into serious infections of the heart, joints, and nervous system.

To prevent Lyme disease, it’s good to know where ticks hang out. “They like long grasses and the woods, though in some areas they can even be in backyards,” says Dr. Threadgill. “If you’re going to be in those types of areas, dress yourself and your kids in long pants that cover your ankles, long sleeves, and hats. Use permethrin-coated clothing, and a DEET insect repellent, if possible.”

When you get home, check your kids from head to toe. Teach your child to do a tick check every night as they get into pajamas. Ticks can attach to skin anywhere on the body, so don’t forget to check the entire scalp, behind the ears, and in between toes.

If you do see a tick, remove it with tweezers by pulling straight away from the skin. “You may want to save the tick in a baggie or pinned between scotch tape in case you have later concerns about Lyme disease and need it identified or tested,” she says. She also advises tossing all clothing into the dryer on high for at least 10 minutes, which will kill any ticks that might have attached to clothes.

Fire pit and BBQ safety

Outdoor meal gatherings go hand in hand with summer fun and there are ways to keep your family safe from common dangers.

“When it comes to open flames and barbeques, it’s important to be attentive to young children so they don’t get burned,” says Dr. Threadgill.

Make sure nothing is hanging off the edge of the grill that a child might grab onto. And set ground rules with children so they know they’re not allowed to get too close to fire pits, grills, or pizza ovens. Skewers and roasting sticks can also pose a danger. Consider when your child may be old enough to hold them on their own and even then, they should always be under supervision when they are using them. Teach your children how to hold them and to never point them at another person. Our experts' tips on preventing and treating burns can help keep children safe during the summer and beyond.

Burns aren’t the only risks at a barbeque. Also be aware of BBQ food safety tips for your next party. For example, be careful to avoid food that sits out too long. If a dish that’s supposed to be served cold has warmed up, it’s a good idea to skip it to reduce the risk of food poisoning. 

Margaret Threadgill, MD


Alexy D. Arauz Boudreau, MD, MPH