Blistering sunburns in adolescence linked with 80% higher risk for melanoma

The risk for developing melanoma is significantly linked with severe sunburns before age 20 years among young white women, according to recent findings.

Specifically, the risk for onset of melanoma in adulthood was increased by 80% among those who suffered at least five blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 years.

In the study, which is published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, researchers evaluated 108,916 white, female registered nurses enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II. They followed the participants, who upon enrollment were between the ages of 25 and 42 years, over the course of about 20 years. Study participants completed a baseline questionnaire about their medical histories and risk factors for skin cancers, including information about moles on their legs, blistering sunburns and family history of melanoma.

About 24% of participants reported suffering blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence, roughly 10% had more than five blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 years and about 24% had utilized tanning beds, according to a press release.

Every 2 years, participants answered additional questions pertaining to family history, tanning bed use, smoking and alcohol intake, and BMI. In calculating the cumulative UV exposure for each study participant, the researchers considered years spent in different geographic locations of the United States. They then categorized the participants as having low, medium or high baseline annual UV flux.

The researchers found that throughout the course of the study, 6,955 participants were diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma 880 were diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma and 779 were diagnosed with melanoma. Of those with melanoma, 445 had invasive disease.

There was an increased risk for all three types of skin cancer in women who had experienced five or more blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 years. When compared with participants who did not experience sunburn between the ages of 15 and 20 years, those with five or more blistering sunburns had a 68% higher risk for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. Further, the risk for melanoma was increased by 80% in this population.

Study participants exposed to the highest levels of cumulative UV radiation in adulthood had a 2.35-fold increased risk for basal cell carcinoma and a 2.53-fold increased risk for squamous cell carcinoma; however, cumulative adult UV exposure did not yield an increased risk for melanoma.

According to researcher Abrar A. Qureshi, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Dermatology at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, these findings highlight the importance of protecting against severe sunburns in childhood and adolescence.

“Parents may need to be advised to pay more attention to protection from early-life sun exposure for their kids in order to reduce the likelihood of developing melanoma as they grow up,” Qureshi said in a press release.

Darren Mays, PhD, assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, said while these findings revealed possible differences in the risk factors for the different types of skin cancer, exposure to harmful UV remains a common denominator.

“Although the results show potential differences may exist in the relationships between sun exposure and cancer risk for different types of skin cancer, from a primary prevention standpoint the message to be gleaned from this seems fairly clear: Preventing harmful UV exposure early in life plays a critical role in reducing the risks of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer in the future,” Mays said in a statement.

Disclosure: Qureshi serves as a consultant for Abbott, Centocor, Novartis and the CDC.