The Midwest polar vortex and its historic low temperatures, with wind chills falling to -60˚F in some places, have created a winter wonderland for your little ones. But while the snow can be a fun way to spend an afternoon stuck at home, your children are vulnerable to frostbite or frostnip, a precursor to frostbite. Frostbite occurs when your child’s tissues become frozen. In severe cases, the frostbite can extend to deep tissues. This condition can quickly cause permanent and dangerous damage.
Kids are especially prone to frostbite because they do not retain heat as well as adults. Also, kids may be enjoying the outdoors so much, they ignore being cold to keep playing.
It’s important to understand the different types of cold-weather related skin conditions:
- Frostnip is a milder form of cold injury that affects exposed tissues, such as the cheeks, ears, fingers, nose, and toes. The skin will appear red and may feel numb and/or tingly. Re-warming the skin can help to reverse the condition.
- Frostbite occurs when the deeper tissues are injured and may not be reversible. The skin starts to appear waxy, numb, and hardened to the touch. Frostbite is a medical emergency and can indicate hypothermia. Hypothermia can be deadly.
Preventing either condition is vital to protecting your child during periods of severe cold. Before your child heads outdoors, protect him or her by doing the following:
- Teach your child how to recognize when they are becoming too cold and to avoid touching cold metal with their tongue or bare skin.
- Dress your child warmly before going outside. Start with a base layer of cotton material and layer accordingly. Dress your child in the same amount of layers and style as you would for yourself, plus one. The outermost layer should be as waterproof as possible, including waterproof boots.
- Cover the areas on your child that could contribute to frostnip or frostbite, including ears, fingers and toes.
- Limit your child’s time outside. Local weather experts are issuing guidelines for exposure to extreme cold—following them can help reduce the risk of frostbite.
Despite your best efforts, your child can still experience frostnip. Initial symptoms include seeing yellow or gray patches on your child’s skin that turn red and flaky when they go indoors. If you see areas that look like this:
- Remove any wet clothing and pat any wet areas dry—do not rub these areas, as it can damage the skin.
- Immerse any reddened or discolored areas in warm, but not hot, water. The Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin recommends a water temperature between 104˚F and 108˚F. Color should return to your child’s skin after 15-20 minutes.
- Wrap your child in a warm blanket and offer warm foods, such as soup or apple cider.
- If you suspect frostbite has set in, take your child to the emergency room immediately. If you attempt to re-warm your child’s skin and the skin starts blistering or turns blue or purple, seek immediate medical attention.
- Rub snow on frostbitten skin.
- Apply a heating pad or other form of direct heat to the skin.
- Thaw the frostbitten area if your child may be again exposed to the elements before getting medical attention. Thawing and re-freezing can cause deeper damage.
Reviewed by Dr. Eva Benmeleh, September 2020
- Frostbite can affect your child’s skin, causing deep tissue damage, and is an indication of hypothermia.
- Prevent frostbite by letting your child play outdoors in 15 to 20 minute increments, dressing him or her warmly, and educating on signs of cold skin.
- Remove your child’s wet clothing and re-warm him or her with warm water.
- Seek emergency medical attention if frostbite is suspected.