700 Children's Blog

Frostbite: Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Feb 11, 2016

Winter has finally arrived! Some people, including me, would have been happy for warm temperatures to last a little longer, while others are glad to get outside and take part in all the fun that winter has to offer. While playing outside in cold weather, it’s important to be mindful of the risk of frostbite.

Frostbite is a condition characterized by tissue damage occurring due to prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures. These cold temperatures cause freezing and crystalizing of fluid and cellular tissues, which impairs blood flow and causes cell damage and death. The resulting injury can range from mild to very severe.

The areas of the body most commonly affected by frostbite are hands and feet, though it can occur in any exposed or poorly covered area, such as cheeks, chin, ears and nose.

Symptoms of frostbite can include:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Skin color changes, such as redness, or a pale, waxy appearance
  • Blister formation

Children are at increased risk for frostbite because they lose heat from their bodies more rapidly than adults, and because they are often reluctant to wear appropriate winter weather attire.

According to the National Weather Service, frostbite can occur in as little as 30 minutes when the wind chill dips below 0°F, so it is important to protect yourself and your children if you are outside. Wearing appropriate clothing is the key to preventing frostbite and other cold weather conditions, such as hypothermia. Because little hands and feet are at particular risk, it is important to pay extra attention to dressing those areas, but it’s best to dress in layers, from head to foot, including:

  • A hat; and depending on the nature of the activity and time spent outside, protective face covering.
  • Mittens are preferable to gloves, as they are better at preventing heat loss.
  • Socks should always be worn, and if they become wet, it is important to change into dry ones as soon as possible.

Parents should be mindful of the amount of time children are outside and the nature of their activity. When children are engaged in active play, such as sports, they may sweat underneath their clothing which can put them at increased risk for heat loss. Conversely, because their body feels warm from physical activity, they may be tempted to remove some of their layers of clothing. It is important to note that damage from frostbite can occur even before symptoms are severe.

If you suspect that either you or your child may be experiencing symptoms of frostbite, it is crucial to act immediately to prevent further tissue damage. The first, and most important, step is to get out of the cold! Then remove wet clothing and begin the process of re-warming the affected area using moist heat, such as warm (not hot!) water. Moist heat is preferable to dry heat, such as heating pads, because it more thoroughly thaws frozen tissue. Once able, you should seek emergency medical care. Frostbite is not a condition that should be treated at home – it requires prompt evaluation by a medical professional.

Keeping kids active in the winter can be a challenge, but there are a lot of fun ways to get outdoors and stay busy! While you’re having fun sledding, snow-tubing, skiing, or building a snowman, take necessary precautions. If you suspect your child may be experiencing symptoms of frostbite, visit an urgent care center or emergency department immediately.

Featured Expert

Courtney Porter, RN, MS
Ambulatory, Registered Nurse

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700 Children’s features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.