Parents have been asking me some cool questions about frostbite and how to recognize it in their children. Well, let me see if I can warm things up and provide some information on this topic.
Frostbite is literally frozen body tissue. It usually affects skin but sometimes it can involve even deeper tissues. Since children lose heat more rapidly than adults. they are at greater risk for frostbite to occur, especially when they are reluctant to stop playing out in the cold and come inside to warm up.
The mildest and earliest form of frostbite is “frostnip” which affects small areas of the exposed body such as the cheeks, nose, ears, fingers, and toes leaving them red and tingly. Treatment is fairly simple involving bringing your child inside, removing all wet clothing, and putting the chilled body parts in warm, not hot water for 15-20 minutes until normal sensation returns.
Full-blown frostbite is characterized by white, waxy skin that feels numb and hard. It requires medical attention but in the process of heading to the Emergency Department or waiting for an ambulance, there are some things you can do:
- Get your child into a warm environment and dry clothing. Do not try to thaw out frostbite unless you are in a warm place.
- If their feet are affected, carry them rather than have them try to walk.
- Give them a warm drink to help them warm up.
- Do not use direct heat such as fire or a heating pad to thaw the frozen area, and do not try to thaw an area outdoors if it could refreeze again because this will damage tissue even more.
- If re-warming causes blisters to form, don’t break the blisters or rub the skin or your child will experience major discomfort similar to a severe burn.
Of course the best way to deal with frostbite is to prevent it from occurring. This can be done by dressing in lots of layers and removing layers if they are too hot. Choose fabrics other than cotton since cotton does not keep you very warm. Thermal or woolen underwear is a great first layer. Heavy socks and waterproof boots are a must. Keep your child’s head covered to prevent loss of lots of body heat off the top of their head, and have them wear scarves, face masks, ear muffs, mittens or gloves. Keep your child hydrated – it helps keep blood circulating to the end tissues like fingers and toes. Offering a warm drink like hot chocolate also encourages your children to come inside and get warm while keeping them hydrated.
What are some warning signs? If your children begin to shiver or their teeth chatter, if they feel dizzy or weak, or if they cannot feel their fingers, toes, cheeks, ears or nose, then they need to come in and warm up right away.
Hopefully tips like this will melt away any concerns you have when it comes to knowing more about frostbite.
Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital at the University of Vermont Medical Center and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives.