Just about everyone who lives in New York State can relate to the experience of coming inside out of winter weather with an ice-cold face, hands or feet. As you start to warm up, your ears, nose, fingertips and toes begin to tingle and perhaps burn a little. Most of us simply settle in with a cup of hot cocoa and enjoy the feeling as warmth returns to our body.
Sometimes, however, our extremities get overexposed to the cold, resulting in numbness, a white or grayish-yellow skin color and a firm or waxy feeling to the skin – all signs of frostbite. And that can mean trouble.
What is perhaps most dangerous is not paying attention. Because the affected areas of frozen skin are numb, you may not even realize you have frostbite unless someone points it out to you.
When you consider this in light of children playing out in the snow – skiing, sledding, walking to school – it should be motivation enough to take common sense precautions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that frostbite is an injury to the body caused by freezing. Frostbite and hypothermia are related but different conditions. Both result from exposure, but hypothermia – when your body is losing heat faster than it can produce it – is more serious and requires emergency medical help.
If you have the signs of frostbite, but not hypothermia, and you cannot get immediate medical help, the CDC offers this advice:
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Or, warm the affected area using body heat. Frostbitten fingertips warmed under the armpits are an example.
- Immerse the affected area in warm – not hot – water. (The temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body.)
Do NOT do this:
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes – this increases the damage.
- Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
These “first aid” steps should not take the place of seeing your doctor. Frostbite can be serious and permanent, and severe damage can lead to amputation!
Prevention is the best medicine. The risk for frostbite increases for people with reduced blood circulation or among people who are not dressed properly for extreme cold weather. Take a quick look at your children playing in the yard, or heading out to school or for a day with friends.
Preventing frostbite comes down to staying warm and dry, and limiting skin’s exposure to cold air.
- Wear the right clothing to keep your body core warm. Fabrics that wick moisture away from skin and waterproof gloves and boots are good.
- Layering clothing is an excellent strategy. Plan for a thin wicking layer next to the skin, followed by an insulating layer over that to trap warmth. The outer layer should protect against the weather.
- Wear a hat. The old saying that you lose 60 percent of body heat through your head is false. However, if you go out in the cold with your whole body covered with clothing and only your head exposed, it should be obvious that the exposed area loses heat first and fastest.
- Wear breathable and waterproof gloves. Breathable means air – along with moisture – can escape. Remember that warm and dry is our goal.
- Wear warm socks in waterproof shoes or boots.
- Avoid cotton clothing. It can actually absorb moisture and make you colder in the long run.
- Windy and extreme cold conditions call for a scarf or facemask to keep your nose and cheeks protected.
Preventing frostbite has become easier with the introduction of super insulating fabrics and clothing, but don’t get complacent just because your kids are wearing the right clothes. Younger, smaller bodies lose heat quicker than adults. Playing outside in the snow, even for bigger and older kids, can lead to fatigue and wetness, both factors that contribute to frostbite.
A word about hypothermia
Hypothermia is a very dangerous condition where the body’s temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Children already have a lower body temperature than adults, so they are more susceptible to this condition, especially when they get wet.
- Slurred speech
If you notice these symptoms in your children, get them inside right away, out of wet clothes and wrapped in a warm, dry blanket. Call 911 immediately.
More resources for winter safety and children
- Frostbite from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Winter Safety: Sledding, Skiing, Snowboarding, Ice Skating & Cold Weather
- Picking the right socks for winter