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Avoiding frostbite

Winter months mean kids have the opportunity to sled, play pond hockey, and just spend time outside doing fun activities. Low temperatures can be particularly hazardous if kids are not dressed appropriately. One potential hazard is frostbite. Chas Hannum, MD, a general pediatrician, answers some common questions about this condition.

What is frostbite?

When skin is exposed to extremely cold temperatures it is at risk of developing frostbite. Frostbite in a condition where the skin and tissue just below the skin freeze. When this happens, there is a lack of blood circulation to these body parts. It most commonly impacts fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. If left untreated, frostbite can permanently damage skin and the tissue beneath your skin, such as blood vessels and nerves. Frostbite can lead to infection of the damaged tissue if left untreated. 

What causes frostbite?

Frostbite is caused by exposure to extremely cold temperatures. Skin that is exposed when it is cold and windy is most susceptible to getting frostbitten, but skin covered by gloves and shoes, especially if it is wet, can also be affected. If it is cold enough, frostbite can happen very quickly. 

What symptoms should I look for to see if my child has frostbite?

Signs of frostbite include numbness, tingling, pain and white, hard or “waxy” feeling of the skin. 

How is frostbite treated?

If you suspect your child has frostbite, bring them indoors immediately. If they are wearing wet clothing, remove it. It is best to re-warm frostbitten skin with wet heat (submersing in water or with a wet cloth or towel). If you are concerned about frostbite, after re-warming the skin, if it is persistently red, swollen and/or blistered, you should seek medical attention by calling your child’s doctor or taking them to the nearest emergency room.

How can I prevent my child from getting frostbite?

There are a few important steps you can take to prevent frostbite, including:

  • Dress them in warm layered clothing. Layers should be loose and the outer layer waterproof.
  • Have periodic outside playing breaks to keep your children warm and minimize frostbite risk. 
  • If their clothes or shoes get wet during a break, change them into dry clothes before going back outside.
  • Teach your children about the signs and symptoms of frostbite so they can understand when they should take a break from being outside.

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