I’m worried about my child going outside in the cold and getting frostbite. How will I know if he has it and how do I treat it?
Dr. Marla We are Canadians and winter is a large part of our life so it’s important that we dress for our climate to avoid frostbite. Frostbite happens when skin freezes because of exposure to very cold weather. According to Environment Canada, the threshold temperature to watch out for is -28°C, with or without wind chill. That’s when skin can freeze in less than 30 minutes. At -40°C it can happen in less than 10 minutes. And at -55°C, it can happen in two minutes, when you should just not even think about going outdoors.
The key word here is exposure so it is not a surprise that the most common areas affected are nose, ears, hands and feet. Make sure your child is bundled up well with warm mittens or gloves and limit exposure outdoors when it is particularly cold or there is a frostbite warning.
Frostbitten skin usually looks yellow or gray and can feel hard or even wax like. As the skin warms up you can then see the skin becoming red and painful. Sometimes a person with frostbite can complain of a burning sensation in the affected area.
If you are concerned that your child may have frostbite, warm the skin gradually. The advice often given is to put frostbitten hands or feet in warm water. We avoid heating pads and direct heat as you do not want to burn the affected area. Then stay indoors and keep warm. You do not want to be re-exposed to extreme temperatures right after this kind of event.
If you note blistering or continued pain even after thawing the area, see your doctor or seek emergency care.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February 2014.