What Is Frostbite?

Frostbite is a skin injury caused by freezing temperatures. Sometimes it also injures deeper tissue. Serious frostbite can go all the way down to the muscles and bones.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Frostbite?

Children with frostbite get white, waxy skin that feels numb and hard.

Anyone can get frostbite, but kids are at greater risk for it than adults because:

  • Kids lose heat from their skin faster.
  • Kids often don't want to leave their winter fun to go inside and warm up.

How Is Frostbite Treated?

  • Call the doctor right away or take your child to a hospital emergency room.
  • If the feet are affected, carry your child. Do not let your child walk on frostbitten feet.
  • Get your child into dry clothing in a warm environment.

If you can't get to a hospital right away or must wait for an ambulance, give your child a warm drink and begin first-aid treatment:

  • Do not thaw the frostbitten area if it's at risk for refreezing before you get to a health care provider. Skin that is thawed then refrozen again can cause severe tissue damage.
  • Put frozen areas in warm water (around 100°F [38°C]). If warm water is not available, wrap your child gently in warm blankets or use your body heat on the affected area.
  • Do not use direct heat such as a fire or heating pad. The skin may be numb and can burn easily.
  • Do not rub frostbitten skin or rub snow on it.
  • Rewarming will bring on a burning sensation. Skin may blister and swell and may turn red, blue, or purple. When skin is pink and no longer numb, the area is thawed.
  • If you have sterile dressings, put them on the area (be sure it's not too tight), placing it between fingers and toes if they are affected. Try not to disturb any blisters and keep the wound areas clean to prevent infection.
  • Wrap rewarmed areas to prevent refreezing, and have your child keep thawed areas as still as possible. If you have the proper first-aid training, splinting the affected area can help reduce the risk of further injury.

Can Frostbite Be Prevented?

To help prevent frostbite in cold weather:

  • Stay updated on weather forecasts. If it's extremely cold, even brief exposure to cold can cause frostbite.
  • Dress kids in layered warm clothes. Use hats, gloves, scarves, thick socks, and well-insulated boots to cover body parts that are most at risk for frostbite. Inner clothing layers that absorb moisture and outer layers that are windproof and waterproof are best.
  • Make sure kids come indoors regularly to warm up.
  • Change kids out of wet clothing or shoes as soon as possible.
  • If you travel to a remote area, make sure you have proper supplies in case of emergencies and let family or friends know your travel plans.
  • Take a first-aid and CPR class to learn what to do in an emergency.

What Is Frostnip?

Frostnip is a milder form of cold injury. It usually affects areas of skin exposed to the cold, such as the cheeks, nose, ears, fingers, and toes, leaving them red and numb or tingly. Frostnip can be treated at home and gets better with rewarming.

How Is Frostnip Treated?

Bring your child indoors right away. Then:

  • Remove all wet clothing. Wet clothes draw heat away from the body.
  • Place chilled parts of the body in warm (not hot) water for 20 to 30 minutes until all sensation returns. Don't let your child control the water temperature during rewarming. Numb hands won't feel the heat and can be severely burned by water that is too hot. You also can use your body heat to rewarm cold areas.
  • Don't use heating pads, stoves, fireplaces, or radiators to rewarm because the affected skin can be numb and easily burn.

Call your doctor if sensation does not return or your child has signs of frostbite.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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