Diseases & Conditions
Frostbite in Children
What is frostbite?
Frostbite is damage to the skin from freezing and is due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, usually below 32° F (0° C). It occurs when ice crystals form on the skin or deeper tissue. The most common sites for frostbite are the fingers, toes, ears, nose, chin, and cheeks. The severity depends on several factors including temperature, length of exposure, wind-chill factor, dampness, and type of clothing worn. Children are more prone to frostbite than adults because they lose heat from their skin faster and do not want to come inside when having fun playing outdoors.
What is frostnip?
Frostnip is less severe and can affect the cheeks, ears, nose, fingers, and toes. It can usually be treated at home. The skin may be reddened and feel numb or tingly. If this occurs, bring your child inside and warm the skin with warm towels or blankets, or by immersing the area in warm water (100° to 105° F or 38° to 41° C) until sensation returns. Do not soak the affected area for more than 30 minutes. Do not rub or massage the skin. If symptoms of frostbite occur or warming the skin does not help, call your child's doctor immediately.
What are the symptoms of frostbite?
The following are some of the most common symptoms of frostbite:
Skin is reddened and then becomes white, hard, and swollen
Skin burns, tingles or becomes numb
Severe frostbite can result in blisters or ulcers forming and may involve deeper tissues. As frostbite progresses, tissue death and gangrene may occur. The symptoms of frostbite may look like other conditions and medical problems. Always see your child's doctor for a diagnosis.
First-aid for frostbite
Specific treatment for frostbite will be determined by your child's doctor based on the extent and severity of the injury. In general:
Remain calm and reassure your child that you can help. If feet are affected, carry your child; do not allow him or her to walk.
Move your child inside to a warm area and put him or her in dry clothes. Call your child's doctor or take your child to the emergency room immediately. Frostbite can cause serious injury and needs immediate medical attention.
While waiting for medical assistance:
Give your child something warm to drink and wrap a blanket around him or her.
Warm the skin by immersing the area in warm water (100° to 105° F or 38° to 41° C) until sensation returns.
Do not rub or massage the skin.
Do not use direct heat, such as heating pads or fires.
Do not place the frostbitten skin in snow to "warm" it.
Apply clean cotton or gauze between fingers and toes if they are affected.
Do not disturb any blisters.
Wrap warmed areas of the skin to prevent further damage.
Further treatment will depend on the extent and severity of injury and may include treatment of skin damage with debridement or surgery.
Prevention of frostbite
To help prevent frostbite, consider the following:
Dress your child warmly in layers. Make sure ears, fingers, and toes are well covered.
Change clothing if it becomes wet, especially socks and mittens.
Bring your child indoors often to warm up and provide a warm snack, soup, or drink. Check his or her toes, fingers, nose, and ears.
Be alert for early signs of frostnip and frostbite and teach your child what signs to watch for.