Avoiding a ‘vortex’ of frostbite

My children simply cannot get enough winter: the more snow there is on the ground, the more they want to go out and play. However, after the frigid “polar vortexes” we’ve seen lately, I’m concerned about the health risks posed by exposure to the cold weather. Can you tell me what I should be most watchful for, and what can I do to keep my children safe?

Even if there weren’t this recent rush of arctic air to contend with, you’re right to be wary about the hazards of playing in the cold. Colds and flus are indeed more common in the winter, but when it comes to the hazards of playing outside, frostbite is the biggest threat that your children will face in the months ahead.

Frostbite occurs when the skin is subjected to extremely cold temperatures — as the name would suggest, generally freezing or below — for an extended period of time. How long it takes to get frostbite is a function of just how cold it is. When the temperature feels like 30 degrees Fahrenheit, frostbite can take 30 minutes or more to occur. But when the temperature, including wind chill, plunges to zero degrees Fahrenheit, frostbite can take as little as 15 minutes to set in. Children are particularly susceptible to the condition, and unfortunately, parents often mistake the early indications of frostbite for the simple discomfort associated with exposure to the cold.

Frostbite begins with extreme redness, followed by a loss of feeling and color in the affected area. It appears most commonly on the extremities — the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. Frostbite doesn’t go away when you come inside to warm up; and it can cause permanent damage to the skin and nerves. In the most severe cases, amputation of the affected area is the only treatment.

Since it sounds like sequestering themselves indoors for the whole winter isn’t the ideal option for your children (nor is it really desirable!), dressing appropriately for outdoor activity is the best way for them to avoid frostbite. Make sure they wear warm coats that are snug at the wrist. Your children should also wear hats, mittens, and scarves or (in very cold weather) knit masks to cover their faces and mouths. For activities where your children are exposed to snow, waterproof parkas or waterproof jackets are crucial, and layering several light fabrics such as wool, silk or polypropylene will help to retain more body heat than one heavy layer of cotton.

Finally, do not ignore shivering, an important first sign that the body is losing heat. Persistent shivering is the body’s way of saying that it’s time to take a break from wintry weather.

However, even if you take all the proper precautions, you should still make sure your children recognize the signs of frostbite, and know to get out of the cold and protect any exposed skin at the first signs of redness or pain. Once they are inside, you should seek medical care immediately. If medical attention is not readily available, anyone — young or old — with frostbite should stay in a warm room and immerse the frostbitten area in warm water. If warm water isn’t available, the affected body part can also be warmed against unexposed skin (such as under the armpits).

There’s no reason for the cold to ruin your children’s winter of fun. With awareness, as well as the proper preparation and attire, your kids can have an active winter outdoors while keeping the frostbite at bay.