Protect your kids from frostbite

Renowned pediatrician explains how parents can help their kids avoid and treat frostbite

Protect your kids from frostbite

Winter can be a cheerful time for children to enjoy building snowmen, having snowball fights, and sledding. However, this cold-weather fun comes with a serious hidden danger, frostbite. As temperatures plummet to record lows across the US, many parents aren’t aware of the early indicators or treatments for frostbite. 

“Children are far more susceptible to frostbite than adults,” warns Dr. Dyan Hes, Medical Director of Gramercy Pediatrics. “They lose body heat rapidly and may ignore warning signs if they are having too much fun.”

Dr. Hes' outlines these steps to avoid and treat frostbite:

Step One: Take precautions 

Try setting a 20 minute time limit on your child’s outdoor play in below freezing weather, especially if it is windy. If extended exposure is unavoidable, schedule regular check-ins to evaluate your child’s condition.

“Layering up is a key defense to protecting children,” says Dr. Hes. “Cotton makes an ideal base layer because it absorbs moisture.  Make sure extremities—fingers, toes, ears and face – are properly covered as these tend to freeze first and are the most prone to frostbite.

READ MORE: Frostbite facts

If your child is old enough, teach them the early warning signs of frostbite as well. They should be cautious to detect a prickling feeling, numbness, and pale or red skin.”

Step Two: Get warm 

If you suspect frostbite, you should immediately try to get the injured areas warm. If you cannot get inside, your child can use their armpits to warm fingers. If fingers aren’t experiencing frostbite, hands can be used to warm other extremities. Be cautious not to rub or massage the affected area, this can worsen the damage. If possible, use your breath as an additional heat source.

Once inside, remove all wet or damp clothing and run the injury under warm water. “Make sure you set the temperature,” says Dr. Hes. “Your child will be numb and unable to properly judge what is too hot.”

Step Three: Evaluate the damage

“Frostbite is the freezing of tissue,” explains Dr. Hes. “Like with burns, there are several levels of frostbite severity, defined by the level of tissue damage.”

READ MORE: Taking babies out in the Hudson Valley winter

Frostnip is a minor form of frostbite and causes no permanent damage. It is characterized by extremities that are red and numb or tingly. However, if the skin is white, waxy and hard the injury is more severe. 

Step Four: Appropriately treat the injury 

If you have identified the injury as frostnip, you have caught the ailment early enough that it can be easily treated from home. Simply keep your child’s injury in warm water until their skin has thawed. They may experience mild pain as sensation returns to the extremities. 

“If your child has a more serious form of frostbite, it’s important to get them help right away,” advises Dr. Hes. “Keep your child warm as you wait for and ambulance to arrive or as you transport them to the emergency room. Make sure thawed extremities don’t refreeze, as this can cause further tissue damage. If you have to wait awhile for help to arrive, begin administering first aid to reduce damage.”

READ MORE: Winter fun while staying safe

Keep the affected areas under warm water until they are pink and feeling has returned – the thawing process may result in blistering, swelling or a burning sensation, the skin may also turn blue, purple or red. Loosely wrap the injury in sterile dressing being careful not to disrupt any blisters that may have formed. Keep the thawed areas as still as possible—they can be splinted if you have the first-aid training to do so. 

Dr. Dyan Hes is the Medical Director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City and sits on the board of the American Board of Obesity Medicine.